Washington Lawmaker Won't Resign Despite Past Allegations He Sexually Harassed Students

Dec 7, 2017
Originally published on December 7, 2017 8:54 pm

A fiery top Republican in the Washington Legislature is facing renewed scrutiny over allegations he sexually harassed students as a professor at Central Washington University.

Late Wednesday, The Seattle Times made public for the first time a 2013 investigation commissioned by CWU into the conduct of state Rep. Matt Manweller, a tenured professor of political science at the school.

The investigation includes accusations from the summer of 2006 that Manweller asked a young female student and her friend to have a threesome after buying them drinks at the Starlight Lounge bar in Ellensburg.

The report also outlines allegations Manweller, 48, pursued another student beginning in 2010, leaving voicemails and text messages asking her to leave her boyfriend so he could sleep with her. Manweller said he only contacted her for school-related conversations. That student later said she was not a victim and not harassed.

The investigative report was issued in January 2013, two months after Manweller was sworn into office. The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network obtained a copy of the report through public disclosure laws.

Manweller denied any wrongdoing.

Manweller is the assistant minority floor leader for House Republicans and is the top GOP official on the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. He is an outspoken conservative on issues such as the minimum wage and often garners headlines for his work at the Capitol.

He made waves in 2017 with a proposal to privatize Evergreen State College in the wake of unrest and campus activism.

“Maybe I have a quirky personality, but I’ve never engaged in sexual misconduct ever,” Manweller said in an interview with the three news outlets.

CWU hired attorney Ernest Radillo to investigate Manweller after allegations that Manweller had committed misconduct with students. Radillo concluded in his 2013 report that witness testimony was “credible” in the incident involving Manweller at the bar. He also concluded there was evidence Manweller had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy but noted a formal complaint was never made and more than six years had elapsed since the alleged event.

The student who reportedly told another CWU professor about inappropriate text messages and voicemails from Manweller refused to cooperate with investigators and even made a written declaration stating Manweller was an “excellent professor” and that she had “no allegations to make.”

Radillo wrote that the student’s declaration, which was released through the law firm representing Manweller, appeared to contradict her previous statements.

While there were no official findings of sexual harassment by the school, in April 2013 Dean of the College of Sciences Kirk Johnson issued a written reprimand to Manweller. In that letter, Johnson said Manweller had exercised poor judgment in his interactions with female students, including buying drinks for the two young women he met at the bar and, by his own admission, making inappropriate comments to them.

Johnson said the incidents “have the appearance of an abuse of power.” He ordered Manweller to participate in sexual harassment training by the end of the academic quarter. Manweller said he took the training.

“There is the appearance that you still do not understand boundaries and how to maintain these boundaries,” Johnson wrote.

Manweller, in a letter to the university, challenged Johnson’s actions, saying he “may have said something inappropriate” at the bar, although he “does not recall anything specific about the alleged incident.”

The 2013 report was the second investigation into Manweller’s conduct in three months. Radillo also completed an investigation in October 2012 that was reported on by local newspapers at the time.

In that case, Radillo examined accusations Manweller made unwelcome sexual advances toward a female student and ultimately kissed her without consent. Manweller denies this.

Radillo concluded “evidence exists to suggest” Manweller violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. After the investigation, the university did not determine the allegations were substantiated. The report noted a long time had passed since the allegations. Manweller was not disciplined.

The two investigations—and renewed questions about Manweller’s first marriage to a student he once taught in high school—are drawing some calls from Democratic party operatives for the Republican to resign.

Tina Podlodowski, who chairs the state Democratic Party, posted on Twitter that Manweller should leave office. She compared the situation to that of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and Michigan Rep. John Conyers, both Democrats. Conyers resigned recently and Franken announced Thursday he plans to resign soon following accusations of sexual misconduct.

“I think it’s clear that Matt’s behavior has not been appropriate as an elected official,” Podlodowski said in an interview Thursday.

Legislators have offered a more muted response.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said in a statement he had read The Seattle Times story and found it “challenging to respond directly to anonymous claims in news stories.”

“What I can say is that we strive for a safe work environment where people feel empowered to come forward if there is a problem.”

Democratic leaders in the state House did not respond to a request for comment.

Manweller on Thursday said he wouldn’t resign.

“I am absolutely not going to give in to this mob mentality,” he said in an interview. “You will see my name on a ballot in 2018 and I’m going to win.”

Documented allegations

The main allegation investigated in the 2012 report comes from a woman who graduated from CWU in 2007 with a political science degree.

She said that during her senior year in 2006 Manweller made sexual advances when the two met to talk about a paper she was assigned for an independent-study course, records show. She later provided a written declaration as part of the investigation.

In it, she said that when she went into Manweller’s office, he closed the door, pulled her chair closer to his and said: “Look, let’s be honest you don’t want to write the paper and I don’t want to read it, we can discuss it orally.” He then put his hand on her knee and kissed her.

“I remember feeling so embarrassed,” the student wrote. She said she “pulled back and stood up,” before mumbling something and leaving.

The woman said she did not report the incident quickly because she and her boyfriend were relying on letters of recommendation from Manweller to get into law school.

Radillo concluded “evidence exists to suggest” Manweller violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. After the investigation, the university did not determine the allegations were substantiated. The report noted a long time had passed since the allegations. Manweller was not disciplined.

In October 2012, after newspaper reports of the first investigation, another former student of Manweller’s came forward triggering the second investigation by Radillo.

That student told investigators that in 2006 Manweller pressured her to go out for drinks. She agreed because she wanted a letter of recommendation from him but asked a friend to join her since she didn’t want to go alone.

At the bar, she said Manweller started asking her questions about sex. Eventually, she said Manweller asked her to have a threesome with him and her friend. The woman’s friend also told investigators Manweller talked about sex and threesomes.

The student did not formally complain about her interactions with Manweller, even though she was encouraged to by her therapist and friends, according to Radillo.

Manweller did not agree to participate in the second investigation. He later provided a written rebuttal to CWU after that investigation was finalized in which he disputed the student’s account.

In that letter, Manweller said he ran into the former student and her friend at the bar. He said he never propositioned them, but he acknowledged he “probably said something that was taken poorly, or out of context, and caused offense.”

“If that is the case, then I sincerely apologize,” he said.

Manweller also said the student he met at the bar had been bringing up personal conversations about her boyfriend during office hours, which he said were “uncomfortable.”

In a separate written rebuttal to CWU, Manweller’s lawyers accused the investigators of withholding key details and said the report wasn’t “worth the paper it is printed on.” The lawyers also called the former student’s story “totally untrustworthy” and said she had provided different versions of events.

The second allegation in the 2013 report originated with a psychology professor. The professor said in 2012 one of Manweller’s former students told her that Manwell had sexually harassed her two years earlier, leaving her inappropriate text messages and voicemails.

Staci Sleigh-Layman, the school’s director of human resources, said the woman also told her about the text messages and voicemails from Manweller. Sleigh-Layman said she encouraged the woman to file a written complaint and provide the recordings.

But when the investigator tried to reach the woman, she denied the events. Her later declaration said no recordings existed and she “did not consider any conduct by (Manweller) to be harassing.”

Encounter with a former intern

Washington House Republicans and the chief clerk’s office would not comment on whether Manweller has been the subject of formal or informal complaints since taking his office.

The Seattle Times reported Manweller made comments to two female lobbyists about their appearance or clothing.

A former CWU satellite campus student, who also interned in the Washington Legislature, told The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network that she reported to House officials an email Manweller sent her following a chance encounter.

That student, who asked not to be identified because she plans to work in the Legislature in 2018, said she was introduced to Manweller during a visit to CWU’s main Ellensburg campus in October of 2015.

She said they made brief conversation about her previous legislative internship with a Democrat and later exchanged business cards.

The former student said that by the time she got home that evening, she had an email from Manweller sent from a personal email address.

“It was nice meeting you today,” the email from Manweller says, according to a copy provided by the former student. “Thanks for making the trip all the way over to Ellensburg. Just wanted you to have my contact information that was not related to the legislature. Hope you made it back safe. Feel free to contact me if you ever need (anything).”

“That’s when it just didn’t sit right,” the former student said. “It’s enough to be, like, that’s weird.”

Later, she notified her former supervisor at the Legislature who recommended that she forward the email to the House intern coordinator, which she did in January 2016, according to the email exchange which the three news outlets reviewed.

The intern coordinator, Paula Rehwaldt, emailed back, “I think my boss wanted to see it. Thanks. Nothing will be said, they just like keeping a file.”

Manweller, in an interview, said he couldn’t remember the specific meeting. But he said the events described don’t appear to show anything inappropriate or unusual.

He said he often networks with people through a personal gmail account. Befriending people in political circles is simply part of his job, he said.

“It’s what politicians do,” he said.

Manweller defends himself

In a lengthy interview with The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network, Manweller was at times both defiant and reflective about the investigations and subsequent fallout.

He raised questions about why he was investigated for six-year-old allegations only after he began running for office. He said no official complaint was ever filed against him, and the university never disciplined him. He even was promoted in the aftermath of the reports.

The university also paid Manweller $15,000 in attorneys fees to settle a court complaint dating back to when Manweller contested the public release of the original 2012 report. CWU removed the 2013 reprimand letter from Johnson as part of the agreement, too.

Linda Schactler, a spokeswoman for the school, rejected the notion the investigations were sparked because of the political campaign.

She said the investigations began after the dormant accusations were rediscovered following a records request in 2012 from the Yakima Herald-Republic. The paper inquired about allegations against Manweller after hearing about accusations of misconduct from anonymous sources, records show.

After reviewing the allegations, the school decided they had not been examined properly as required by federal Title IX regulation. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities that receive federal money.

Manweller also said he has wondered if his personality has fueled complaints. He said as a young professor he “tried to connect with students in a way by showing them that I wasn’t an old fuddy duddy, that I was cool, that I got them.”

Manweller said he has been “irreverent,” had failed attempts at humor, and has tried to use “shock value” to get attention in class. While Manweller said he “might have been” flirtatious with students before, it wasn’t his intent to “ever cross a line.”

“But clearly somebody’s feelings were hurt and I must bear some responsibility for that,” Manweller said.

The university recently completed another investigation into Manweller’s conduct, this time for allegations of “unprofessional behavior” in the classroom, according Schactler. The report has yet to be disclosed and it’s unclear what it concludes.

Manweller speculated a student might have complained after he showed a Saturday Night Live skit in class. The skit is a mock advertisement for jeans the show describes as “sizeless, style-neutral gender nonconforming denim.”

The university also solicited advice from an Evergreen State College administrator after the 2013 report to see if any more investigation should be done.

Nicole Ack, then Evergreen’s Civil Rights Officer, wrote in December of 2013 that CWU should hire an outside investigator to take a “comprehensive” look at Manweller’s conduct stretching back to his time as a high-school teacher to see if there is “a pattern of behavior which has created a hostile environment.”

Ack asked whether the reports about Manweller had created a climate that discourages women from taking political science classes or stifled any additional concerns.

The university did not heed the advice to launch a broader investigation.

Manweller said he believes rumors of him acting inappropriately with students may have been sparked by people seeing him on campus with his wife.

He met his first wife while teaching at a Utah high school in the late 1990s. She was a sophomore who had moved to the school from Boise. Manweller had also moved to Utah from Boise, sparking a friendly connection.

The two began dating after Manweller had left the school to pursue his advanced degrees in other states.

Manweller said they only began dating after she graduated high school. His wife said they met up in Boise while she was an 18-year-old senior on a holiday break and exchanged romantic emails after.

After she graduated, the two married in Boise before moving to Oregon, where Manweller studied for his Ph.D. and his wife attended community college. They later moved to CWU when Manweller was hired as a professor. She finished out her degree there.

Former boss reflects

Johnson, the former dean, reflected on Manweller’s record at CWU in an interview with The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network.

Johnson is now retired and living in Port Angeles.

“They weren’t just mild things,” he said. “The average faculty member doesn’t get allegations of students coming to them saying that they either propositioned them or engaged in some kind of creepy behavior.”

Johnson said he recommended that Manweller not be promoted to a full professor following the 2013 report—in part because of the history of complaints about his interaction with students.

Manweller was denied the position but later was promoted after a formal appeal.

While Johnson emphasized in the interview the university has never officially found Manweller to be guilty of misconduct, he said the accusations were serious and constituted a pattern that is hard to ignore.

“I think there’s smoke there,” he said. “Can I say there’s a raging fire? I can’t say there’s a raging fire.”

This story was reported in collaboration with The News Tribune and The Olympian.

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