Washington UTC chair who used racial slur asked to resign

An investigation found two commissioners allegedly used derogatory language, disregarded harassment complaints and failed to advance equity policies.

text from report

The Governor's Office hired a law firm last summer to investigate various hostile workplace and discrimination allegations. Utilities and Transportation Commission Chair Dave Danner acknowledged using the slur while quoting someone else, but disputed the report’s conclusions. (Illustration by Jacob Jones/Cascade PBS)

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has asked the chairman of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to resign and docked his pay following reports that he and another commissioner used a racial slur.

A third-party investigation found Commissioners Dave Danner and Ann Rendahl violated multiple policies when they allegedly used the N-word, failed to properly investigate harassment allegations and took a “passive approach” to equity work amid competing discrimination complaints at the regulatory agency.

The 19-page investigation report outlines allegations against Danner and Rendahl largely based on complaints from several former senior administrators. The report notes former executive director Amanda Maxwell had also faced employee complaints over alleged hostile workplace issues before she resigned in lieu of termination last August. A number of other senior leaders departed the agency following Maxwell’s exit.

“[The] complainants allege that Mr. Danner and Ms. Rendahl created a hostile work environment by failing to take action in response to anonymous complaints targeting the complainants because of their gender and by their own discriminatory behavior,” the Dec. 27 report stated. “All complainants further allege that Mr. Danner and Ms. Rendahl exhibited hostile behavior toward employees who advocated for equity in the workplace.”

Inslee’s office hired a law firm last August to investigate the various allegations. The investigator could not substantiate several other complaints, and did not level any findings against Maxwell or the other senior leaders. 

While Danner acknowledged using the slur while quoting someone else, he told Cascade PBS he disputed the report’s conclusions and one account of his use of the slur. He characterized the accusations against him as retribution on the part of the former UTC administrators, who he blamed for “creating a culture of fear” that led to low morale and a wave of departures. 

Rendahl declined to comment for this story, but the investigative report stated she also acknowledged using the slur while recounting the same story as Danner. 

Danner said Rendahl also met with the Governor’s Office, but they did not ask her to resign. He said he intends to serve out his term and his attorney has promised legal action if the Governor’s Office does not restore his salary.

“I have expressed my regret for saying this word,” he said. “I don’t understand the disparate treatment.”

A three-person board oversees the state-level agency, which regulates private energy utilities – such as Avista and Puget Sound Energy – and telecommunications services. A staff of roughly 150 UTC workers also inspect natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines and railroads for safety among other issues.

After commissioners asked Maxwell to resign last summer, a group of senior leaders hired at Maxwell’s request all filed complaints against the commissioners and resigned. They have retained attorney Stephanie Henderson Stocker, who said she plans to bring discrimination lawsuits against the state on behalf of them all.

“I’m pleased that they recognized some harassment,” Stocker said of the report, “but there’s a lot more to be uncovered.”

Inslee appointed all three of the sitting commissioners and while Washington state law allows them to be removed for “inefficiency, malfeasance or misfeasance,” his office cannot do so unilaterally. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would need to convene a three-judge panel to consider such charges at the governor's request. A spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts told Cascade PBS that the Washington Supreme Court has not received any requests to remove UTC commissioners.

Inslee’s office declined to comment on the report findings, but said they are reviewing next steps.

Third-party findings

An investigator with the Bellevue-based Sebris Busto James law firm concluded that Danner and Rendahl violated three UTC policies, though the commissioners disputed significant portions of each witness account of the alleged violations.

The report relays the complainants’ accounts of Rendahl using the N-word during a February 2022 book club meeting to discuss the text White Fragility. She told the investigator that she only used it to relate an encounter she overheard at a conference where a regulator from Montana said it during a social event. She did not perceive anyone to be troubled by it, the report stated. 

The complainants also accused Danner of showing up late to the same book club and retelling the story using the full word. He denied that, but did admit to recounting the same story using the full slur during an April 2022 lunch with Maxwell and a Black author scheduled to give an upcoming DEI talk.

Portrait of Danner
Commissioner Dave Danner (UTC)

In a recent letter to the Governor’s Office, Danner said he “deeply regret[s]” saying the N-word at the lunch, but does not think it constitutes a policy violation. He accused Maxwell and the other senior managers who resigned of filing complaints against him and Rendahl as part of a “coordinated campaign” of retaliation for forcing Maxwell out. 

The letter also argued the Governor’s Office had acted in violation of the state Constitution when it recently reduced Danner’s salary amid the investigation. 

“I have done nothing that constitutes malfeasance,” Danner told Cascade PBS, referencing one of the legal thresholds for removing a UTC commissioner. “And to cut my salary as a workaround … if it is to try and intimidate me into resigning, that’s also illegal.” 

Within a few months of Maxwell’s appointment in 2021, a number of anonymous complaints accused Maxwell’s leadership team of bullying and demeaning subordinates. The report does not appear to follow up on those allegations and does not make any determinations about the validity of those complaints. 

But the report does outline employee allegations that one senior leader “discredits and actively puts down viewpoints or experiences that disagree with her,” and that another manager “lectured” BIPOC job candidates when she found their answers to questions about DEI wanting, telling them to “Go read White Fragility.” Senior leadership also allegedly dismissed feedback about their management style as motivated by sexism, the employee complaints included in the report claim.

Maxwell and other senior leaders reported that they considered these anonymous complaints harassment and repeatedly asked the commissioners to investigate their source and call a staff meeting to tell employees who were filing the anonymous complaints to stop. 

Portrait of Rendahl
Commissioner Ann Rendahl (UTC)

Rendahl agreed that the complaints were harassing and contained misogynistic language, but was counseled not to address them at a staff meeting, she told the investigator, adding that she could not remember who gave her that advice. 

Danner reportedly rejected the idea that the complaints against female leadership constituted gender-based harassment, calling them “sincere complaints made by employees who felt they were being bullied” and telling the investigator that one female administrator has “a history of being very histrionic about injustices put upon her.”

Danner further argued that the remedies suggested to him — such as calling a meeting and telling staff to stop filing anonymous complaints — could have been perceived as an attempt to retaliate against whistleblowers.

The report indicates the commissioners took no action to address the complaints. 

A third violation concerned allegations that the commissioners were hostile to and dismissive of equity and antiracism efforts. Complainants alleged the commissioners talked over female leaders and “chastised” a team for resisting edits that toned down equity language in a case order. Both commissioners denied the allegations, but the investigator found them to be in violation of internal policies that require UTC management to actively engage in promoting DEI efforts.

“I find that Mr. Danner and Ms. Rendahl failed to comply with directives in the policy by taking a passive approach to the agency’s equity work and not actively engaging with senior leaders to find alternative methods to advance the agency’s EDI efforts,” the investigator wrote.

The investigator was unable to substantiate numerous other allegations, including that the commissioners retaliated against a senior leader for using paid family and medical leave; refused to promote a senior leader based on her race and gender; exhibited preferential treatment of white male staff; and mispronounced “Tagalog” and compared the language to Klingon. Both commissioners denied those allegations.

Long-standing conflicts

The names of the complainants are redacted in the report, but four have publicly identified themselves in statements through Stocker: Maxwell, Rayne Pearson, Anna Gill, and Melissa Chessman. Most appear to have moved on to other positions at various state agencies.

Maxwell previously served as a longtime UTC employee. She was hired in 2008 as a communications consultant, promoted to oversee the consumer protection division in 2016 and promoted to executive director in 2021. 

Maxwell settled one ethics board complaint, paying a $750 fine for sending UTC staff an email in November 2021 about the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict that included a link to donate to the ACLU. 

Following the complaints about senior leadership and at the suggestion of someone from the Governor’s office, the agency hired a company called Tandem Motion to do a “culture assessment.” The investigator noted the assessment’s findings that less than 40% of participants reported feeling safe to share honest feedback within the agency or trusted the leadership team to have their best interests in mind when making decisions. 

“Most team members distrust, or feel unsupported by, the Leadership Team and commissioners,” the assessment found.

The culture assessment was delivered on June 29, 2023. About six weeks later, on Aug. 8, Danner met with Maxwell and said he needed her to step down, offering her the chance to resign rather than be fired. She resigned the following day and reverted to her previous position. (She now works for the State Office of Equity.) 

Several days before Danner asked for Maxwell’s resignation, senior leaders began filing complaints with OFM about the commissioners alleging discrimination. In a section titled “other observations,” the investigator noted that all five senior leaders filed complaints with OFM within a few days leading up to Maxwell’s firing, some within minutes of each other. They appear to have coordinated statements submitted for the investigation as well.

“Although four of the five complainants submitted lengthy timelines, it appears that the timelines were a joint effort as substantial portions are identical,” she wrote.

Stocker told Cascade PBS she plans to send “robust” demand letters to the UTC before filing lawsuits, possibly in June. In a statement, she said that numerous current and former UTC employees are prepared to testify in a trial.

“We intend to fight this all the way,” Stocker’s statement read.

The commission has worked to rebuild its leadership staff in recent months. It has hired a new executive director, human resources director and equity director.

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About the Authors & Contributors

photo of Brandon

Brandon Block

Brandon Block is an investigative reporter at Cascade PBS, focused on following the federal recovery money flowing into Washington state.