Investigation finds Washington lawmaker berated, bullied staff

State Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Gig Harbor, seen here in February 2020, could face discipline after a scathing report issued Monday concludes she verbally abused and bullied legislative staff members. (Courtesy of Legislative Support Services)

A Republican state lawmaker violated legislative conduct rules by repeatedly belittling, berating and swearing at staff members, leaving some “traumatized” by the experience, concludes an investigation released Monday by the chief clerk of the Washington House of Representatives.

Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Gig Harbor, demonstrated “a pattern of behavior in which she lashes out at people, makes public statements that have the impact of demeaning and embarrassing individuals and is generally disrespectful,” wrote Sheryl Willert, an employment law expert hired by the House to conduct the probe.

Her actions violate a House workplace policy that bans verbal abuse and bullying, which may include threatening, humiliating, degrading, or intimidating behavior, Willert concluded.

Caldier, who did not return a phone call or emails Monday, appealed the findings on Friday. She has 30 days to submit additional information to the House Executive Rules Committee, the panel of four Democrats and three Republicans that can uphold or override the findings.

First elected in 2014, Caldier represents the 26th Legislative District which encompasses parts of Kitsap and Pierce counties and includes Bremerton, Port Orchard, Purdy and Gig Harbor.

Caldier could face discipline by the executive rule committee, her caucus or House Administration because some of the affected employees worked for other areas of the chamber operation. Punishment could range from a letter of reprimand to reduced staff or loss of committee assignments.

Through a spokesperson, House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said he would not have any statement until the appeal is completed.

Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the House, said he’ll wait for the process to play out.

Caldier told the investigator she was unaware of concerns cited by those interviewed. And the lawmaker alleged on multiple occasions she suffered discrimination when the state – specifically her caucus and the Office of the Chief Clerk – failed to accommodate her disability of declining eyesight.

But Willert wasn’t buying it, writing in a footnote that this was “an effort to either deflect attention from her own conduct which was the subject of the investigation or alternatively to suggest that it was because of her disability that she acted in the manner in which she did.”

The full report on the investigation into Rep. Michelle Caldier’s treatment of staff: Caldier Final Report

‘A horrible person’

An incident in a woman’s bathroom at the Spokane Airport on Nov. 18, 2022 set the investigatory wheels in motion.

A meeting of House Republican Caucus and staff had ended and several people headed to the airport to fly to Seattle. Caldier was in the bathroom doing something with her makeup when a person identified as Individual 1 entered and greeted her.

When the lawmaker didn’t respond, the person repeated themself and identified themself when Caldier asked who was speaking. At that point, Caldier is reported to have called Individual 1 “a horrible person” and added “we are done.” There were witnesses.

Caldier, in an initial interview, said she was “startled.” Later said she didn’t know if the person came in to speak with her or use the bathroom and at one point told Willert, “Everyone knows I can’t see so why come and speak to me.”

On Dec. 8, Caldier had her access to staff, including her legislative assistant, restricted “due to a pattern of communications challenges with staff,” according to a redacted email in the report.

Six days later, the formal investigation began.

It took awhile. Willert interviewed 15 people. She spoke with Caldier in May, June and July, each time with a lawyer present.

The report contains 35 pages of investigative narrative and 52 pages of documents, mostly emails. Some date back several years and concern Caldier’s claims of a lack of accommodation for her disability.

Those who worked with Caldier on a fairly regular basis described her as being “unpleasant” and “a yeller,” and someone who is generally unappreciative, according to the report.

One of those interviewed said she had churned through 10 legislative assistants between 2015 and 2022.

Caldier said some left to work for those with political views more closely aligned with theirs. Others moved on because they were not qualified, she told the investigator.

Some interviewees said Caldier often used profanity in general conversation. She also directed profane language at employees.

Caldier didn’t deny using profanity in some circumstances, telling the investigator, “the reason there are swear jars is because there is a significant amount of swearing in politics, that she usually pays ahead of time and that is supposed to take care of all of your sins.”

Warning sign

Caldier’s combustible behavior is well known among her legislative colleagues.

She reportedly lost her caucus leadership position in February 2022 as a result of incidents with the staff. Republican Rep. Joel Kretz, the then-deputy minority leader, reportedly told her she needed counseling.

Peer mentoring was suggested that summer but Caldier balked at the use of formal mediation, the person who brought the original complaint told the investigator.

In November, Caldier left the caucus in a very public way and stayed out during the 2023 session. The report contains an email from December 2022 in which she tells the recipient, whose name was redacted, she got out because of “the poor treatment under your leadership.”

Caldier aired concerns and frustrations with caucus leadership to the investigator, telling her every member “has to navigate landmines because leadership is really in it for themselves.”

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, served as House Minority Leader in November 2022.  He declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation.

“There was no caucus action that prevented her  from coming into the caucus room,” he said.

by Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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