Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lands commish was focus of sex harassment complaint


SEATTLE – It's only July, but we've already seen the race for Governor get publicly nasty with attack ads from both sides.

Now, another statewide race is heating up with accusations of sexual harassment at the Department of Natural Resources involving current Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, who is up for re-election.

"I've dealt with negative campaigns before, but this is by far the lowest blow I've ever seen," said Sutherland.

It all stems from an incident in 2005, the details of which were first reported in a partisan liberal blog.

According to internal DNR documents, a new employee complains that during an informal breakfast meeting, Sutherland takes her by the shoulder and "feels it then twists me around so that my back is facing him and he holds me with one hand and feels my back (open palmed) from my neck down to my waist, shoulders, etc."

She goes on the claim Sutherland means he "could have felt up front or could have felt the other side."

Sutherland disputes that part of the report and others remember it differently.

"I don't believe I said that. That's out of my character," said Sutherland.

The commissioner acknowledges the incident happened, but says his intentions were misunderstood.

"I was being very joking, very humorous, asking to see where the arrows were in her back and saying 'you gotta be strong enough to deal with some of these folks,'" said Sutherland.

Sutherland, who has been in public service for more than two decades at the city, county and state level, says the incident has changed the way he deals with employees and people he doesn't know.

"I'm a very informal person. I'm a hugger. My whole family's huggers," said Sutherland.

The man trying to win Sutherland's job, Peter Goldmark, has a different take.

"Of course he's going to call it a cheap shot, but it wasn't something that was manufactured or created by anybody else but Mr Sutherland," said Goldmark. He calls the incident a completely appropriate campaign issue that should be aired for voters.

"I think they have every right and deserve to know how their agency leaders are treating the employees," said Goldmark.

The investigation was an internal investigation at the Department of Natural Resources. No other agency ever looked into it. There has never been any legal action taken as a result of the incident.

The employee has not been identified and has not spoken publicly about what happened. She left the agency after less than a month on the payroll.

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