Senate investigating allegations against Sen. Kevin Ranker

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The state Senate is conducting an outside investigation into Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker following allegations of improper conduct, the first test of the chamber's new workplace policies adopted in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Through a public records request, The Associated Press obtained a contract between the Senate and Tara Parker, an investigator with Ogden Murphy Wallace law firm in Seattle, who was hired by the chamber in October.

Ann Larson, who served as Ranker's legislative assistant for a year nearly a decade ago, said the investigation is related to sexual harassment and hostile workplace issues. She says she also was subjected to hostile encounters involving Ranker once she left to work as a legislative liaison for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Lobbyists and lawmakers are among those being contacted by the investigator.

Ranker said as soon as he learned of Larson's report, he told the secretary of the Senate he would cooperate with the investigation. "I believed an investigation was absolutely critical to ensure fairness for all involved," he wrote in an email to the AP.

He said he would not comment further while the investigation was underway, but believes he will be exonerated.

Larson, who is now director of government relations at the state's Department of Enterprise Services, said she first met Ranker when she worked as a clerk for the San Juan County Council. Ranker was a council member before he was elected to the Legislature. She said she had consensual sexual encounters with him before he recruited her to work with him in the Senate.

She said she started working in his district office in 2009 and had limited interaction with him and wanted to keep their relationship professional. But she said that during the 2010 legislative session she was subjected to regular sexual harassment from him. She said that when she rebuffed him, he became increasingly hostile to her, and she ultimately decided to leave the job.

Larson said she began considering going public with her allegations against Ranker after her former co-worker at the Department of Fish and Wildlife was convicted in January of breaking into Larson's home and raping her. He was sentenced in March to more than 10 years in prison. The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sexual assault, but Larson agreed to have her name used.

Larson said that after the trial, she was inspired by women who came forward during the #MeToo movement.

"I need to make it feel like it's a safe environment without fear of retaliation," Larson said. "I want women to know that there's a process, that it's a safe process."

After initially talking with a reporter, Larson notified the governor's office and they alerted the Senate, sparking the investigation. Gov. Jay Inslee's Chief of Staff David Postman did not comment.

In July, a Senate committee approved revised workplace policies based on recommendations by a bipartisan task force following the rise of the #MeToo movement. Under the new policy, once an investigation and any subsequent appeal is completed, a report will be released publicly if there is a finding of a violation of prohibited conduct.

Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson said Senate policy prohibits him from offering additional information beyond what the contract with Parker shows. But he confirmed that under the policy approved in July, the investigation would be the first in which he had the sole authority to conduct such an investigation or refer it to an external third party.