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Friday, February 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aides' leaving sparks investigation of Sen. Roach

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Once again, Sen. Pam Roach is at the center of a ruckus in the Legislature.

The conservative Republican from Sumner made headlines in the past for suggesting fewer school shootings would happen if teachers and other workers could carry concealed weapons, and for a tantrum she threw on the Senate floor after someone removed flowers from her desk.

Now Senate leadership is investigating whether Roach created a hostile work environment that led to the departure of two aides on the same day last month.

In addition, the Secretary of the Senate suspended a Roach aide last week for digging up and turning over to Senate officials personal e-mail from the departed aides. That matter was referred to the Legislative Ethics Board.

Senate leaders have met twice to discuss Roach but won't disclose what was said. Both sides indicated yesterday that an agreement may be in the works. "I want to bring this to conclusion," Roach said, adding she wants her name exonerated.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, a Roach supporter, says the outspoken senator is an easy target for critics.

"She's being attacked by detractors because she's too honest, too straightforward," he said.

Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman argues the Roach controversy is about more than a personnel dispute. "Pam Roach has a history of erratic and inappropriate behavior, and this is just the latest and most stark example of why in many ways she's unfit for office," he said.

Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means committee, said Roach has mood swings, but her behavior does not warrant formal Senate action.

In 1999, Senate leaders sent a letter to Roach, urging her to seek counseling, said Lorraine Wojahn, a retired state senator. Roach said she only became aware of the letter recently and asked for a copy; she would not disclose what it said. The Secretary of the Senate has not made the letter public.

The Roach personnel investigation turned into a circus at one point, when an anonymous e-mail was sent out two weeks ago alleging the senator had pulled a gun on one of her former aides.

A pack of reporters, complete with tape recorders and television cameras, showed up at her door and Roach invited the crowd into her small office. She denied the rumor. Asked if she carried a gun on campus, Roach took off her coat, pulled out the tails of her blouse and offered to be patted down.

Then, with television cameras rolling, Roach led the media pack downstairs to confront a Senate worker she thought had spread the allegation. She stopped short of a confrontation.

Since the gun rumors surfaced, a steady stream of reporters has been through her office. Roach has even made the rounds of newspaper offices herself, and started a feud with Senate Majority Leader James West, R-Spokane, by trying to reinstate the aide who was suspended last week. She said West is a bully.

West did not return phone calls yesterday.

Roach's story about the gun rumor has changed over time.

At first she denied there was any instance involving her, a former aide and a gun.

Then she said she did show the aide a handgun when the young woman was living in her house last fall. Then, when asked about a rumor that she pulled a gun in her house when the woman had come home late and Roach may have mistaken her for an intruder, Roach said nothing like that ever happened.

Then she said that it had, indeed, happened. Her daughter-in-law had reminded her.

Now she says it never happened. "I never had a gun in hand. She knew I had a gun in the house. She came in late at night and I said 'Tabitha,' like that. It was kind of a cheerful thing. The next day we laughed about that."

Roach says the gun rumor found a ready audience because she's known for marksmanship and has won shooting competitions.

Roach was elected to the Senate in 1990 and is chairwoman of the Government Operations and Elections Committee.

Benton said outspoken lawmakers such as Roach are vulnerable to attacks.

"Those of us who are aggressive, high strung and passionate are easy targets," he said. "She'll tell you what she thinks and some people don't like that. They view brutal honesty as being abrasive when in fact it's just honesty."

Roach said some find her offensive because she's a woman who speaks her mind. "If you are a woman and you raise your voice slightly, you are considered shrill," she said.

With men, it's not an issue, Roach said.

She compared her outburst in 1998 about flowers being removed from her desk to former Sen. Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, resigning in a huff in 1997 after he lost a fight with the Republicans who controlled the Senate at the time. He later came back to the Senate, one week after quitting.

"His response to not being able to make a rule change was to quit," Roach said. "He gave a big speech. He yelled, he was red in the face, then he packed up and quit."

Roach contends Snyder was treated more favorably by the media than she was after complaining about flowers being taken from her desk.

In her now famous "flower" speech on the Senate floor, Roach said: "My flowers were not on the desk when I came in here today, and nobody asked me if they could pick up and move them ... I'm incensed that anyone would move or touch anything on a senator's desk. I want to find out who took my flowers and moved them, and I intend to take action."

Chris Vance, state Republican Party chairman, said that while Roach may be the subject of gossip in Olympia, the controversy is not hurting the Republican Party.

"People are not walking around malls and restaurants talking about Pam Roach. They're talking about war and the stock market."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times staff reporter David Postman contributed to this report.

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