Heated exchange over COVID rules between state lawmaker, security leads to conduct probe

Mar 9, 2022, 3:26 PM | Updated: Mar 10, 2022, 6:55 am
Robert Sutherland, conduct probe...
Washington Rep. Robert Sutherland. (Office of Rep. Sutherland)
(Office of Rep. Sutherland)

An investigation is underway into whether Republican state Rep. Robert Sutherland violated the Legislature’s code of conduct over the weekend, after a heated exchange with the director of House security when Sutherland was denied access to his office for not getting a required COVID test.

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The issue between the pair happened as Sutherland sought entrance to the Legislative building after being blocked from his office, according to Jerry Cornfield at the Everett Herald.

A short time later, Sutherland was captured on video speaking to a crowd of hundreds rallying against COVID mandates at the state Capitol, and shared details about the incident.

“I got locked out of the building because I didn’t get tested for COVID,” Sutherland told the crowd.

“I don’t have COVID! I’m healthy,” Sutherland shouted, before adding that “they” had almost arrested him about an hour earlier.

“The sergeant at arms, I looked at him and – excuse my French – and I said, (expletive) you! You’re not going to shut us down,” he claimed.

Sutherland told the Herald that he was sorry if his comments offended anyone in the crowd, but that he was not ready to apologize about the exchange with House security, who he alleged threatened him first and was the verbal aggressor.

“There were some expletives shared by the two of us,” Sutherland said. “I am willing to shake his hand and say we had a bad day — we both could have handled it better.”

The investigation into whether Sutherland’s behavior violated the code of conduct is focused on what he did before and at the rally.

“We take this situation seriously in terms of him yelling obscenities at a staff member. That would be a serious breach of the respectful workplace policy and code of conduct,” said Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the House of Representatives.

The Legislature’s code of conduct requires state lawmakers “conduct themselves with self-awareness, self-respect, and professionalism.” They also must “treat all others with respect, dignity, and civility, regardless of status or position,” and refrain from hostile or intimidating behavior.

The House has a separate respectful workplace policy that prohibits staff — including lawmakers — from harassing, intimidating, or acting disrespectfully toward another employee.

After meeting with an investigator Tuesday, Sutherland told the Herald he thought it went well.

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“I explained I had a simple request to get into the building, and I had a difficult time communicating that to him,” he said.

House Republican leaders weighed in on the issue earlier in the week.

“The tone and the language used reflects badly on all of us. We don’t agree with that,” said House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox when asked about the incident during a Monday press briefing.

“We don’t believe that you should cuss, swear at people that are working for the House,” he added, noting that his caucus was still trying to get a clear understanding about what happened.

On Wednesday, Dean said investigators had viewed the video and interviewed witnesses but declined to comment further as the probe was ongoing.

If Sutherland is found to have violated any of the policies, there could be a variety of consequences, including loss of access to staff, removal from committees by his caucus or – though very unlikely – a full vote in the House to censure Sutherland.

The last state lawmaker to face such action was former Republican Rep. Matt Shea, who was expelled from his caucus in 2019 after a House-sanctioned investigation found he had engaged in acts of domestic terrorism and intimidated political enemies. Shea opted not to run for re-election and wrapped up his final term in 2020.

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Heated exchange over COVID rules between state lawmaker, security leads to conduct probe