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Employees say state insurance chief used racist slurs, mistreated staff

Office of Insurance Commissioner
Former staff allege that Democrat Mike Kreidler, Washington's longtime elected insurance commissioner, has mistreated staff and used offensive and racist language in conversation, which stands in contrast to his record of advocating for marginalized communities.

HOST: Washington’s long-time elected insurance commissioner has used offensive terms in the workplace to describe people of different races and ethnicities, as well as people who are transgender. That’s according to former agency insiders who’ve come forward in recent weeks. Meanwhile, other former employees are giving new accounts of what they say is Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s mistreatment of staff. The allegations against the six-term Democrat stand in contrast to his record as an advocate for marginalized communities. Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins has this follow up to a story we brought you last month -- in collaboration with The Seattle Times.

AUSTIN JENKINS: Bonita Campo had three job opportunities in the winter of 2018 when she decided to accept an offer to become Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s executive assistant.

BONITA CAMPO: “I was really excited about it just because it paid really well. And I really liked the focus of the work that they did there. And Commissioner Kreidler seemed like a really nice man.”

JENKINS: But from the start Campo says it seemed no matter what she did, it was never to Kreidler’s satisfaction.

CAMPO: “He was rude to me often, just comments that he made were rude and were degrading.”

JENKINS: And then there were specific incidents. Like the day a contractor for another agency parked in Kreidler’s parking spot. Campo said she got the person to move, but Kreidler wouldn’t let it go. He insisted that she put him in touch with the person overseeing the contractor’s work.

CAMPO: “I just couldn’t believe he did that and make such a big deal out of that and it was very upsetting to me.”

JENKINS: There were other incidents too. But the last straw for Campo came when she arranged Kreidler’s travel for a trip to Switzerland for a climate conference. When he discovered she hadn’t booked him in business class, she says he became upset and threw a folder containing the itinerary back at her.

CAMPO: “He threw it at me and said I’m not going and I just thought to myself OK, that’s enough, that’s enough and I just left. I walked out, put all the stuff on my desk and I left and I never went back.”

JENKINS: She’d been on the job for just three months. Campo is one of several current and former Office of Insurance Commissioner employees who in recent weeks have come forward to raise concerns about Kreidler’s treatment of his staff. They include Campo’s successor who also quit after she said Kreidler subjected her to emotionally abusive and demeaning comments. Bonita Campo also described Kreidler’s treatment as disrespectful and abusive. For his part, Kreidler acknowledged the parking incident she described. But he denied throwing a folder at her — saying that would have been out of character. He did recall that Campo left abruptly and said he felt bad about that. Regarding his treatment of subordinate staff in general, Kreider reiterated what he’s said previously — that he needs to do a better job.

MIKE KREIDLER: “And I've said that to my employees. And it's certainly something that I've taken to heart.”

JENKINS: The criticism of Kreidler doesn’t stop there. Several former employees described Kreidler using outdated and racist terms or descriptions for people of Chinese, Mexican and Italian descent and people who are transgender. The comments are a striking contrast to Kreidler’s public advocacy for marginalized groups — including requiring insurance companies to cover medically necessary treatment for transgender patients. In an interview, Kreidler — who’s 78-years-old — attributed his use of any offensive terms to a slip of the tongue or ignorance because of evolving norms and said it’s not something that happens routinely. Kreidler also said he takes great pride in the work his office has done to address discrimination in insurance and that his verbal lapses shouldn’t overshadow that.

KREIDLER: “My challenge is to make sure that that even internally, where I'm not using words that could be offensive to somebody. If I'm aware of it, I don't ever repeat it. I'm proud of being politically correct. I work at it, and I'm going to continue to work at it.”

JENKINS: But former employees told public radio and The Seattle Times they found the comments deeply offensive and hurtful. And some said Kreidler seemed preoccupied with their ethnic identity. A Japanese American finalist for a top job with Kreidler said his first question during the interview was whether her great-grandparents had worked in the pineapple or sugar plantations in Hawaii. She said he went to say that he didn’t consider Japanese Americans to be a disadvantaged racial minority group. When asked about this, Kreidler didn’t dispute the woman’s account, but acknowledged the impact on Japanese Americans from being incarcerated during World War II. The woman said she immediately withdrew from consideration following the interview. And a former staffer who is Korean American said Kreidler once dropped by her office to ask her if Genghis Khan had ever invaded Korea and if she had any Mongol blood in her. Asked about these comments, Kreidler said he’s interested in ancestry and people’s backgrounds, but added that he needs to restrain his curiosity if it’s going to offend people.

KREIDLER: “And if there are people out there that feel offended, I feel bad about it.”

JENKINS: Former employees of color also came forward to complain that Kreidler sought them out to assist with non-work-related matters. Tabba Alam, an immigrant from India, worked as an economic analyst in Kreidler’s office until he was let go a few months ago. He says in 2019 Kreidler enlisted him to help plan a trip to India. Alam says Kreidler wanted help choosing hotels and had questions about security while traveling.

TABBA ALAM: “For a couple of days I had to be constantly on call with my father asking him to reach out to security people to other people as to how to make his stay out there comfortable pretty much.”

JENKINS: Alam says he didn’t mind giving Kreidler suggestions on sights to see, but felt this went too far.

ALAM: “As an economist, I don’t think this is within the purview of my job.”

JENKINS: Kreidler’s office said the commissioner recalled seeking advice from Alam about the trip — which was a combination of business and pleasure — and that Alam did not appear to be hesitant or concerned about providing help. The trip was ultimately canceled because of COVID. The Korean American former staffer said Kreidler also repeatedly tried to enlist her to help him navigate an issue he was having with his neighbors who were Korean immigrants. He wanted her to help translate. Kreidler said he was just joking with her. The woman says that’s not how she interpreted the situation. None of the former employees filed formal complaints about Kreidler. However, in February, a white male employee — who works as Kreidler’s legislative director — did file a complaint alleging abusive behavior on the part of Kreidler. But instead of launching an investigation, Kreidler’s chief deputy dismissed the complaint on the grounds that Kreidler sets the workplace rules for the Office of Insurance Commissioner and therefore there was no basis to consider action against him. Trish Murphy is an employment law expert in Seattle. Murphy said she couldn’t speak specifically to the Office of Insurance Commissioner. But said in her years of experience, she couldn’t recall an organization taking the position that its leader can’t be held accountable for complying with the organization’s policies.

TRISH MURPHY: “As an employment lawyer, I wouldn't expect to have a different approach given that it's an office headed by an elected official.”

JENKINS: Kreidler’s office says on the face of it the employee's complaint alleged intimidation, but not discrimination or harassment and that therefore no investigation was warranted. However, the commissioner’s own anti-discrimination policy says intimidation constitutes prohibited conduct even it if it does not violate anti-discrimination or harassment laws. The policy also requires employees to report incidents of intimidation and states that all reported allegations will be investigated. I’m Austin Jenkins in Olympia.

HOST: We did ask if Kreidler has taken diversity training recently and were told his agency has no record of that. That stands in contrast to all eight of Kreidler’s peers in statewide elected office. We also asked if Kreidler has any medical or cognitive conditions that might contribute to him making derogatory remarks. In a statement, his office said Kreidler “does not discuss his medical conditions or status with the media.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Seattle Times.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."