Benton v. Rivers: Capitol smackdown

Sen. Don Benton has filed a formal complaint against colleague Sen. Ann Rivers, saying she has engaged in abusive, unprofessional criticism of him.
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Sen. Ann Rivers

Sen. Don Benton has filed a formal complaint against colleague Sen. Ann Rivers, saying she has engaged in abusive, unprofessional criticism of him.

Sen. Ann Rivers cussed out colleague Don Benton twice in front of fellow Republican state senators — dropping at least one F-bomb on him.

Consequently, Benton is really pissed off — though he might put it more decorously — at Rivers and at leaders of the Republican-oriented Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus. who want the feud to fizzle.

No such luck. Benton, who wrote a letter accusing majority coalition leaders of being "retaliatory" against him, as well as "cowardly" and "amoral," has obtained an investigation into Rivers' conduct.

Rivers apparently considered filing a counter-complaint, alleging that Benton is harassing her. But no such complaint had been filed by Friday at the Senate majority and minority leaders' offices, which is protocol for such an action. Speaking of protocol, Senate leaders have appointed Sens. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, and Karen Fraser, D-Olympia to investigate the matter. The two senators met about the issue for the first time Friday.

Benton and Rivers both represent Clark County. Both are among the more conservative Senate Republicans. Both spearhead the opposition to replacing the Columbia River Bridge between Vancouver and Portland. Their voting records are similar, and they have co-sponsored a few bills.

Benton is deputy majority leader. He has been in the Washington Senate since 1996, after a two-year stint in the House. He recently made headlines for obtaining a $100,000-a-year job as head of Clark County's environmental services department despite having no apparent qualifications for the post  — not to mention a record of hostility toward environmental regulations. He also chairs the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee, which restored staffing privileges to Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, at the beginning of the 2013 session. Roach had lost her right to staff after verbally abusing subordinates. Her privileges were returned in an apparent exchange for her vote, which helped give the 23-Republican-two-Democrat coalition control of the Senate.

Rivers served in the House in 2010-2012 before being elected to the Senate in 2012. She is the majority whip, meaning she is in charge of keeping track of the majority coalition's members, including their intended votes prior to floor sessions.

Both Rivers and Benton were in their districts Friday, and did not reply to messages seeking comments. However, four letters by Benton, one email by Rivers and one letter by the majority coalition leaders are on file at the Secretary of the Senate's office. These documents provide an outline of the feud.

There were two incidents: The first incident occured in the back of the Senate chamber during a floor session on April 19. Another took place during a Majority Coalition Caucus meeting on June 3.

The April 19 incident took place near some majority coalition senators whose seats are in the back of the main Senate chamber. None of the documents explains what triggered the incident, and none cited specific details. It appears Rivers' profanity did not occur during a formal floor speech with a microphone, but instead happened during one of the informal conversations routinely conducted during any floor session.

Benton wrote the Secretary of Senate's office on April 22 to say that Rivers loudly directed "expletives" at him; a later letter said Rivers had used an "'F' bomb."

"Her boisterous and unprofessional behavior, combined with her use of profanity, is unacceptable in any venue, especially on the floor of the Senate," Benton wrote.

He continued: "At one point during her uncontrollable tirade, I was actually afraid that she may even physically strike me. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. I have been on the receiving end of many heated comments over the years, but I have never before felt the threat of physical violence. This time was different. She was so out of control I felt anything was possible. I repeatedly asked her to calm down and lower her voice. The tirade became so out-of-place that Senator (Tim) Sheldon even asked Senator Rivers to calm down and take it off the Senate floor. ... I am requesting that official action be taken to insure that Senator Rivers' behavior be stopped."

On June 3, the two got into it again in a caucus meeting of the majority coalition. Public details are scarce.

On the evening of June 3, Rivers sent an email to Benton and apparently to the other members of the majority coalition. Her email said: "Don -- I apologize for using profanity to express my feelings about you. You were correct when you pointed out, rightfully, that it was unprofessional. To my fellow caucus members, I am sorry to have put you in the uncomfortable position of witnessing the exchange."

On June 5, Benton sent an email to Rivers and the rest of the majority coalition members saying: "Ann, Let me be clear ... there was NO exchange. It was all you. I was commenting in general to the caucus (not you) about our media presence when you decided to jump in, unrecognized by the chair, to blame me somehow for your not getting enough press coverage and exploded in a vulgar tirade against me personally. I sat quietly. Your apology is hollow as it does not include an apology for a similar (but much worse) tirade that included the 'F' bomb (on the Senate floor on April 19). ... You create an unpleasant work environment for me and everyone who surrounds you with this type of behavior. Please get some professional help."

On June 8, Benton wrote to the Secretary of the Senate that he had met with Rivers, Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, caucus chairwoman Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee and Jeannie Gorrell, a majority coalition staff attorney. Benton wrote that Rivers told him at the meeting that she was considering filing a complaint of harassment against him.

"Later that day in a second meeting, Senator Parlette stated that possibly Senator Rivers' profane and personal rants against me were somehow caused by me. .... I have never had a complaint regarding my conduct during my twenty years in the legislature," Benton wrote.

In the same letter, Benton wrote: "Senator Schoesler, Senator Parlette and Jeannie Gorrell have put pressure on me to pull my complaint with your office regarding Senator Rivers' unstable behavior. They have stated this needs to be quietly resolved. They fear what the press would do with this story. They fear that it would somehow give the minority in the Senate an advantage. They even went as far as to suggest that I somehow brought this on myself. Never once did I hear a concern expressed over the institution of the State Senate, never once did I hear a concern expressed toward me, and never once did I hear about stopping the unstable behavior of this State Senator."

On June 11, Benton wrote to the Secretary of the Senate about finding Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, sitting in Benton's seat during a majority coalition caucus meeting. Smith took the seat at the request of Parlette, who thought it best to separate Benton and Rivers. Benton said that move was really retaliating against him, and that Rivers should have been the person to move to another seat. "I do not believe Senator Parlette is taking my claim as a victim seriously," he wrote. Other documents show they have a different view.

On June 13, Benton requested that Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, order an investigation into Rivers' conduct.

On June 14, Tom, Schoesler and Parlette wrote a letter to both Benton and Rivers. It began by saying that both are valued members of the caucus. They continued; "We have observed a high level of animosity between the two of you. This is not one-sided. You have both played a part in this, and it does not match the high ideals to which our caucus aspires."

The leaders explained that they would move Rivers' and Benton's caucus seats so that they no longer sit next to each other. Also, the two feuding senators will quit sharing their one staff member after the 2013 session is over. And Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, will deal with Benton — in the place of Rivers — whenever the caucus whip has to discuss matters with him.

On June 19, which was Wednesday, Benton wrote a letter back to the majority coalition leaders saying that the seat rearranging and eventual ending of the shared staffer won't prevent Rivers from verbally attacking him.

Wrote Benton, to the leaders: "In your letter, you state that there is ' a high level of animosity' between Senator Rivers and me. You also state that the animosity between us is 'not one-sided.' Both of these statements are inaccurate. ... I have behaved professionally and reasonably at all times regarding this matter. ... Your letter and 'arrangement' are retaliatory and, if I may say so, cowardly. You would rather ignore justice and the rules of the Senate than have discord within the caucus. Understand, I do not share your amoral views."


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8