Former Staffer Says Washington House Failed To Protect Her From Sexual Harassment By Lawmaker
A former legislative assistant for Washington state House Democrats says she was sexually harassed by Rep. Jim Jacks nearly two years before he was forced to resign for “inappropriate behavior,” but that the House’s system for addressing misconduct failed her.
The woman, who asked not to be identified out of concern for her future job prospects, said that while she worked for Jacks in 2009 he called her a “hottie” and a “groupie,” would stare at her breasts and “just acted inappropriately.”
The former staffer also said that Jacks arranged a meeting with her in his office in the late summer of 2009 during the legislative interim when no one else was around and propositioned her.
“He let me know if I would agree to fool around with him, he could help progress my career,” the woman told the Northwest News Network during an interview at her home in Olympia.
The woman, who is married with children, said she refused his advances.
In an emailed statement Friday morning, Jacks wrote, “I deeply regret my actions that were inappropriate during my tenure as a state legislator. I think the conversations today about workplace harassment are important and necessary and can create lasting change—I want those safeguards for my family, my wife and children.”
The woman related her story for the first time publicly Thursday following new revelations about Jacks’ sudden resignation in March 2011.
On Wednesday, in response to renewed media inquiries, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat, released a statement that said Jacks had been forced to resign following reports of inappropriate behavior towards a female legislative staffer at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Sullivan confirmed the inappropriate behavior was of a sexual nature.
In 2011, Sullivan told reporters that Jacks, a married father of two, had resigned for “personal and family” reasons and that there were “no issues” that forced him to step down. Jacks later told the editor of his hometown newspaper, The Columbian, that he resigned “because I’m an alcoholic.”
In recent days, other women have also said Jacks engaged in inappropriate behavior. Former lobbyist Nicole Grant, who represented unionized electrical workers, said Jacks gave her bottom "a little pat" as she left a meeting with him in his office in 2011, prior to his resignation.
In a Facebook post, lobbyist Rebecca Johnson said she was subjected to “predatory touching” by Jacks. In an interview, she elaborated: “He’s tall, he does the arm on the shoulder, inappropriate hug, fingers accidentally grazing your breast. It happened frequently. Every time, not an accident,” Johnson said.
She also said that in 2009, when she was a new lobbyist working for the Washington State Labor Council, Jacks "drunk dialed" her on a couple of occasions and "left long rambling messages" on her voicemail saying he wanted to meet with her. "I remember thinking, what am I supposed to do? Because the rules are, you meet with a lawmaker when they ask to meet with you, and is my boss going to be mad when I say I don't want to do this meeting."
In his emailed statement, Jacks said he has maintained continuous sobriety for the past six years.
“I recognized my alcoholism as a result of the incident in 2011. I do not drink because I wish never again to cause my family or those around me pain because of my behavior.”
On Thursday former Democratic state Rep. Jim Moeller, also of Vancouver, wrote a Facebook post that read in part, “All I ask is that we take a view that we are ‘not ourselves’ when we drink and there but ‘…the grace of God, go I.’ This is NOT given as an excuse, but as a point of context.”
That post generated a series of angry responses from women, including Johnson.
Johnson said she was relieved in 2011 when Jacks resigned, but unhappy with how the resignation was handled. "Wow, he gets to resign and say he was an alcoholic," Johnson said. "That was not the full story and he got to leave with his reputation intact. That does not protect women."
Jacks’ former legislative assistant said that top officials with the Washington state House were aware of his problematic behavior in the fall of 2009, at least a year and a half before the event that resulted in his resignation.
“They knew he was an issue,” she said.
The former employee said that after her encounter with Jacks in his office, she reported his behavior to a legislative assistant liaison for the House Democratic Caucus. She said she asked the liaison to keep the information confidential, but help her find a new office to work for. She said she was told that there were no openings.
She worked for Jacks for two more months and then gave her two weeks notice. At that point, the former legislative assistant said she was told to go see Barbara Baker, the chief clerk of the House.
The woman said Baker seemed genuinely concerned and told her “we don’t want to lose you,” but offered no real solution to keep her from leaving House employment.
Baker, who is now a commissioner for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said she recalled the situation involved a hostile work environment, not sexual harassment and that she learned of the allegations only after the employee had already decided to quit her job.
“We found out too late to do anything, she quit when she came to my office,” Baker said.?
Baker, who was elected chief clerk in 2008, acknowledged that she should have been notified of the legislative assistant’s complaints when she first reported them.
“This was our first experience with this and our systems weren’t set up to deal with it particularly well, and we changed them,” Baker said.
Those changes, according to Baker, included requiring reports of allegations of misconduct to go the chief clerk’s office.
The former legislative assistant said she also met with the chief of staff to the House Democratic Caucus, Majken Ryherd, and related what had happened with Jacks. During that meeting she said she asked about an open position as a session aide to Speaker of the House Frank Chopp.
The woman said Ryherd referred her to Chopp's legislative assistant who, she said, informed her that the session aide job was generally reserved for a young person who had worked on House Democratic campaigns. Chopp’s former legislative assistant said he doesn’t recall saying that.
Ryherd, who’s now a lobbyist, said she recalled the situation with the legislative assistant, but not the details.
“I’m very sorry if she feels like she didn’t have options,” Ryherd said. She added that she always tried to help anyone who was experiencing harassment, but that complaints of misconduct were investigated by the chief clerk’s office, not the speaker’s office. “Their process is their process.”
The former legislative assistant said that after meeting with Ryherd and Baker it quickly became clear to her that House leadership wasn’t going to find another job for her.
“I felt like I wasn’t valued,” the woman said. “I felt demoralized.”
Baker said she later called the woman and tried to offer her a job back in the House. The woman said she didn’t return the call. “I was done. I was mad,” she said.
The former legislative assistant later submitted an application for unemployment benefits. On that application, which she showed to the Northwest News Network, she wrote that she had quit her job because of sexual harassment. However, she never qualified for benefits. A couple of years later, the woman briefly returned to the House to work for a friend who was a state representative finishing out his last term.
The new information about Jacks’ troubled tenure in the Washington Legislature, and how it was handled, comes the same week the Northwest News Network, The Olympian and The News Tribune of Tacoma reported on several women who said they were subjected to unwanted attention, touching and even groping while working in the Capitol over the past decade.
In addition, the Associated Press interviewed four women who said they had been inappropriately touched or forcefully kissed by former Democratic state Rep. Brendan Williams. The Northwest News Network also spoke to two of the women. Williams, who now works in New Hampshire, has not addressed the specific allegations but in an email to reporters said, “Years removed from public office it’s devastating to think I could have carelessly hurt others, while at work I was standing up for the right things.”
The Washington state House is currently reviewing its sexual harassment and workplace policies.
A final report is due in the coming weeks. A workgroup of legislators and legislative staff will then work on implementing the recommendations.
“We have to make sure that when somebody comes forward that we address it properly and when you hear stories like this, this is what we have to fix,” Sullivan said.