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In a meeting Tuesday night in Tukwila that lasted nearly five hours, including an almost three-hour closed-door executive session from which officials repeatedly emerged to make sure no members of the press were listening at the doors and that no members of the body were “leaking” information about what was going on inside, the King County Democrats decided to appoint a five-member panel to conduct a new investigation into the group’s embattled chairman, Bailey Stober. Stober, as I reported Monday, is accused of verbally harassing and bullying the group’s former executive director Natalia Koss Vallejo, whom he fired on February 2, and misusing party funds.
Stober did not step down and continues to deny every charge against him. He has been on paid administrative leave from his job as communications director for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson since February 12 “so the Department of Assessments can gather and review information about allegations against him related to his position as Chair of the King County Democrats,” according to King County chief deputy assessor Al Dams.
The panel charged with investigating Stober, which is supposed to be appointed within the next two to three days, will include two people hand-picked by Stober himself. The third member is supposed to be appointed jointly by Stober and the two party vice-chairs who investigated the initial complaint and concluded that most of the charges were “founded,” and the other two are supposed to be appointed by the vice-chairs. I say “supposed to” because one of the two remaining vice chairs, Michael Maddux, resigned on Wednesday night; a second vice chair, Cat Williams, had already stepped down before last night’s meeting and sent a statement to the meeting about why she stepped down, which was read during the executive session. On Wednesday night, Maddux told me he resigned because Stober “does not care about protecting workers. In fact, thanks to expanding the scope of the investigation to include finding whoever leaked [the vice chairs’ report on the complaint], what they really care about is protecting themselves—not protecting, workers not protecting women. It shows what their priorities are, and that’s not an organization I’m willing to be associated with.”
On Wednesday night, former vice chair Michael Maddux said he resigned because Stober “does not care about protecting workers. In fact, thanks to expanding the scope of the investigation to include finding whoever leaked [the vice chairs’ report on the complaint], what they really care about is protecting themselves.
“It shows what their priorities are, and that’s not an organization I’m willing to be associated with.”
The group will also do a separate investigation, requested by Stober, into the vice chairs’ investigation itself, which Stober and his supporters say was unfair and incomplete. In his complaint, Stober claims, among other charges, that the vice chairs violated the group’s anti-harassment policy by “promoting and sharing ‘offensive written comments,'” which appears to refer to the obscene names he is accused of using to describe Koss Vallejo. Finally, the group plans to do another separate investigation, added last night, into who “leaked” documents and details of what transpired during the executive session Tuesday night to the press, including me. (More on that in a moment.)
According to the report on the complaint distributed in yesterday’s closed session, Koss Vallejo described
extensive harassment on behalf of Stober, including being called ‘bitch,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘slut,’ and being demeaned regularly in front of other people in the political community. She recounted him taking her phone and posting an obscene post to her Facebook while she was using the restroom, and not alerting her for an hour, during which numerous people saw and interacted with the post. She recounted an instance wherein she was driving, and Stober was a passenger, and he sprayed a bottle of silly string in her face and mouth, while recording on his phone, ultimately posting to Instagram. She reported numerous instances of Stober making threats with financials toward her, and referring to her and [another party cited in the complaint] in derogatory terms when they questioned the efficacy of his spending habits. She described extensive demands on her to engage in excessive drinking, and last minute trips to Eastern Washington, with fears of retaliation if she did not comply. [Koss Vallejo has requested a separate meeting to discuss her termination and indicated potential retaliation from Stober. She expressed concerns about Stober sharing misinformation about her termination during the upcoming Special Meeting.
The atmosphere at Tuesday night’s marathon meeting was one of grievance, anger, and high-pitched paranoia. Before those of us who were not voting or invited members of the group were asked to leave, the group’s treasurer, Nancy Podschwit, confirmed and elaborated on what she told me over the weekend: The King County Democrats are out of money, and have been both overspending and bringing in far less money than their budget assumes. In January and February of this year, according to a documented distributed by Podschwit, the organization was supposed to bring in $27,649. Instead, they raised just $7,023, leaving the group with just $3,886 at the end of February. Podscwit said yesterday that the group will be “in the red three grand” by the time she pays all their bills this month, including an $1,800-a-month lease for office space in Auburn, and that’s before an anticipated fine stemming from campaign reporting violation charges from the state attorney general’s office that could total tens of thousands of dollars more.
“She described extensive demands on her to engage in excessive drinking, and last minute trips to Eastern Washington, with fears of retaliation if she did not comply.”
Last night, Stober, who told me over the weekend that the organization was doing fine financially—”I am sitting in the Party office with the rent paid, lights on, heat blasting and nothing is suffering here,” he said—suddenly produced a check for $5,000 he said he had just procured; later, I confirmed that this check was from King County Executive Dow Constantine, who pledged the money in November and just paid up this month. However, Wednesday afternoon, Constantine confirmed that he had rescinded the check pending the outcome of the investigation. In response to my tweet confirming that he had asked for the money back, Constantine tweeted, “The recent check to the King County Democrats has been put on hold. It was for the balance of a pledge from 2017. I regularly donate to the State, County, and my local LD Dem organizations, and others. I look forward to helping KCD again as soon as this issue has been resolved.”
In last night’s executive session, Podshwit said Stober’s spending outside what was allowed by the adopted budget included $3,000 in excessive expenditures on travel and entertainment and $14,000 in excessive expenditures on candidate contributions. Podschwit said that she had resigned three times over what she considered Stober’s excessive spending, and that whenever she questioned him about spending funds that were not authorized by the adopted budget, she was told that he had “ultimate power.”
For more details on Stober’s spending, which included thousands of dollars on hotels, at bars and restaurants, and a weekend Vashon Island retreat for party members at a pricey Airbnb house that included a hot tub, check out my original post.
In last night’s executive session, Stober was asked to step aside temporarily while the investigation was ungoing; he refused. “No. You want to come see the evidence, come see the evidence,” he said. Stober was also given the opportunity to speak at length about how he felt about the allegations. (Koss Vallejo and her invited witnesses were not allowed to speak, except to answer a single question about what time on February 2 Stober fired Koss Vallejo). Stober claimed his attorney had told him that his opponents could not try him in a court of law but that they would try him “in the court of public opinion,” and spoke repeatedly about “justice” and “due process,” invoking Martin Luther King Junior and the fact that “we teach our children the value of fairness” but seem to have forgotten what that means. He spoke so loudly and adamantly that at one point, a member asked him to take a less aggressive tone, and he responded by saying that people tend to get fired up when they’re “falsely accused.”
When I spoke with him by phone and later by email over the weekend, Stober denied all of the charges, including the financial allegations and the claim that he bullied or used inappropriate language around Koss Vallejo. “When there’s an investigation committee or whatever the board decides to do, you wouldn’t see me saying any of those things,” Stober told me. “You wouldn’t see anything like that. As soon as I give it to an investigator, I’m more than happy to say it to the media as well. It’s just not existent. I went through every text, every Facebook message, every email exchange I ever have had—no.”
The allegations, it’s worth noting, appear to be about verbal, not written, communications; therefore, any review of documents would not address the verbal behavior that was described in the complaint. However, screen shots of what appear to be text message exchanges between Stober, Koss-Vallejo, and another Party official appear to contradict at least the spirit of Stober’s claim. In the texts, Stober appears to make numerous disparaging jokes about women, complaining that the organizers of the Women’s March in Seattle chose to hold their annual Day of Action on January 21, one day after the King County Democrats had planned their own event. “Goddamnit, we need to tell the Women’s March to know their fucking role,” a text message that appears to be from Stober says. “THEY GONNA BAKE COOKIES ALL DAY TO PROTEST? CLEAN THE HOUSE?? JESUS.” In another message, Stober appears to joke about printing off an award certificate recognizing a party member accused of raping a woman at the group’s annual retreat last year as “party rapist of the year so everyone feels better.” Another shows an image of a monkey at a desk, with the message “Honestly looks like Natalia trying to work.”
In another message, Stober appears to joke about printing off an award certificate recognizing a party member accused of raping a woman at the group’s annual retreat last year as “party rapist of the year so everyone feels better.”
I asked Stober specifically about these messages, along with another one suggesting that another person in the thread “send [former King County Democratic Party chair] Rich Erwin a chocolate covered dildo and tell him to get fucked,” via email. Stober responded: “I’m not going to have this trial occur in the media – it doesn’t respect my board, the process or due process. But I will say this – my close circle of friends and advisors have engaged in internal jokes and conversations that could have and should have been avoided and we will address that and improve. But for Natalia to pretend that is one sided is a far stretch. … Here is one of MANY screenshots I’ll be turning over to investigators to show Natalia engaging in the same behavior she’s now accusing others of.”
Attached was a screen shot of an apparent text message exchange in which Koss Vallejo making a mild fat-shaming joke about an unknown person. The implication appeared to be that if an employee who answered to Stober made off-color jokes, it makes his own comments excusable. One important issue that has surfaced during the #MeToo era is the fact that women in subordinate positions who have been harassed or sexually assaulted by more powerful men (such as men who have the ability to fire them) often appear “chummy” with the men who are targeting them (a word used by one of Stober’s defenders, 34th District Democrats chairman David Ginsberg, in the initial story on the complaint in the Seattle Times
), appearing cheerful in photos or going along with behavior they may not feel comfortable with.
Stober has consistently claimed that he did not get an opportunity to respond to the vice chairs’ investigation, and specifically that he was not given an opportunity to be interviewed himself. Last night, he said the meeting was “the first time I have ever seen” the full report on the investigation. The vice-chairs, he said in our conversation last weekend, reached out to him late in the afternoon of February 2, when the complaint was filed, and told him that “they were going to interview me. All I asked for is, ‘I can’t do it this week, but I can do it any time after that.’ My week was booked.” That same day, Stober called a special meeting of the Democrats so he could hold an executive session “to brief the board on sensitive materials.” Those materials turned out to include details about why he said he fired Koss Vallejo, according to witnesses.
Back at the King County Democrats meeting, I spent three hours sitting outside the room with several representatives from the live-streaming organization King County Precinct Committee Officers Media Group and a number of people who had been asked to leave the room. I set up my computer on the floor outside, where, very quickly, it became obvious that Stober and his allies were extremely concerned about “leaks” from people inside the meeting. Not only did Stober claim, in open session, that people who talked to the press about what happened in executive session might be subject to a libel lawsuit, he claimed in the executive session to have “sworn statements” from “members of the media” that would prove that the vice chairs had leaked documents about the investigation before he had a chance to review them. At one point, a sergeant at arms came out and told me she had been asked to stand watch over me and make sure I didn’t communicate with anyone inside the meeting. (I declined to let her stand over my shoulder and look at my computer, and she made it clear she didn’t have any interest in doing so in the first place.) The sergeant at arms, Galaxy Marshall, told me she had also been told that I went into the women’s restroom at the same time as Koss Vallejo, and that she was supposed to ask me what we talked about. Obviously, I declined to do that as well (it was clear that Marshall didn’t want to monitor me at the time, and she said as much herself on Twitter the following day.)
In the day or so since the meeting, I have spoken to several members of the King County Democrats who are thinking of leaving the group. Their shared frustration can be summed up as: This is not what we signed up for. Even if there is a new investigation into Stober, the vice chairs, and the so-called “leakers,” it will almost certainly take months, and require everyone involved, including Koss Vallejo, to be interviewed again, a process that could involve responding to submissions from Stober like the trove of text messages from Koss Vallejo that he appears to believe will vindicate him. Stober has reportedly suggested that bad press from “leaks” is at least partly to blame for the group’s anemic fundraising. I would argue that the existence of a significant investigation into sexual harassment and financial impropriety is more damaging to the King County Democrats than “leaks.” Moreover, “find the leakers” is a phrase more closely associated with a different political party.
*Quick civics lesson: Whistleblowing, or “leaking,” is free speech protected under the First Amendment that is backed up by considerable case law. Truth is an absolute defense to libel. Reporting a fact that another person wants to conceal is not libel. Also, Robert’s Rules of Order, the rules under which the King County Democrats generally operate, is not the law.