Roach might leave GOP - State senator's move would alter balance of power at Capitol



Olympia, WA - State Sen. Pam Roach, who says she's caught in a power struggle with Republican Majority Leader Jim West, warned that she could become an independent or switch parties if the situation gets worse.
Roach, R-Sumner, compared her disagreements with West to a chess game being played away from the Senate floor -- with control of the Senate possibly in the balance. Republicans control the chamber by a 25-24 margin, and Roach said her political options include going independent and switching parties.

"You have the king, Jim West, and the queen, Pam Roach. Let's see what happens," Roach said in an interview Thursday, adding: "But remember, the king only moves one step in any direction. I'd much rather be the queen. You can take a long shot right across the board."

West quietly disputed Roach's claims.

"There's no power struggle," he said. "Pam's a valuable member of our caucus. We just can't have people intimidating our employees."

It was West who last month told reporters that Senate members of the internal Facilities & Operations Committee were reviewing the departure of two Roach aides -- both of whom quit Jan. 14, after working one day of the legislative session -- to see if Senate rules might have been violated by anyone, including Roach.

The Senate has agreed to give one aide, Daniel Honkomp, five extra weeks of pay in exchange for giving up any right to sue the Senate over what Honkomp has described as a hostile work environment created by Roach.

The Senate also is looking into Roach's handling of private e-mails retrieved by her newest aide, Kelly Hinton, who came on board after Honkomp and the other aide, Tabitha Wells, quit.

Hinton was suspended without pay last week by Secretary of the Senate Milt Doumit over the e-mail retrieval, and the Senate operations committee has sent a letter to the Legislative Ethics Board informing the board of the investigation.

Legislative Ethics Board counsel Mike O'Connell said the letter from the Senate to the board does not actually request an investigation, but West said that was the intent of the Senate's seven-member Facilities & Operations Committee when it voted unanimously to send the letter earlier this week.

Olympia attorney Shawn Newman, one of two lawyers hired by Roach, said the senator has not been given appropriate due process -- in other words, a chance to defend herself -- in the Senate's inquiry. He questioned why the Senate sent a letter to the Ethics Board without at least informing Roach or him, as attorney of record, about it.

Roach and Newman said she has several political and legal options.

"My main thrust is to make sure my constituents get what they want," Roach said, describing regulatory reform and other bills she wants to champion. "Can we give them that from an independent status? Yes, you can. You have to watch what happens.

"I think the options are definitely open. I have met with the other party."

Roach, who complained that West is keeping her out of discussions about what has happened, said he appears not to want to treat her with respect. He made this clear, Roach said, by not talking to her before he disclosed the inquiry to reporters. And the resentment on West's side may run deep, she said.

"It was his budget I voted against in 1998," Roach said, recalling the previous time Republicans had the majority and West was chairman of the budget-writing committee.

"So what?" West replied, adding that the budget vote was in 1997. He also said he and Senate Republican Caucus Chairwoman Pat Hale, R-Kennewick, spoke with Roach the night of Jan. 13 about the departure of her aides.

Democratic Sen. Lisa Brown, the minority leader, acknowledged that Roach made overtures to her party. But Brown said she does not want to comment on the situation because she also sits on the Senate operating committee, which is weighing actions that could involve Roach and her aides.

"We're in the process of asking questions and determining what the role of the Facilities & Operations Committee should be in these issues," Brown said, adding that the four Republican and three Democratic committee members hope to wrap up their work soon.

Even if Roach does jump ship, it's not yet clear that Democrats would gain. Roach herself noted that Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who already is chairman for a committee for the Republicans, could take her place in the caucus.

And other legislators are, in her words, "wild cards."


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