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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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November 28, 2007 2:39 PM

Rep. Dunn: Inappropriate comment was free speech

Posted by David Postman

An attorney for state Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver, says the lawmaker's inappropriate comment to a female legislative staffer was constitutionally protected speech. And the punishment handed down by fellow Republicans, he argues, is discrimination against Dunn because of his race and age.

You can read the details here of the ham-handed, barroom, come-on that Dunn says was a failed attempt at humor. Dunn has apologized for the comments. But he's fighting back against the loss of some of his pay and all of his committee assignments, as ordered by House Minority Leader Richard Debolt, R-Chehalis.

Dunn will lose per diem payments because of lost committee assignments. His attorney, Shawn Newman, says in a letter sent to the House counsel today that "a member's compensation can only be suspended if he or she is convicted and sentenced for a felony."

Newman says that not only was Dunn's conduct in the Tri-Cities hotel bar not illegal, it was constitutionally-protected free speech. Newman wrote to House Counsel Timothy Sekerak:

The undisputed facts are that the isolated comment was not made in a "workplace" but in a bar after dinner to someone who does not report to or work for my client. Despite inferences to the contrary, there was nothing illegal about his sarcastic comment. What is illegal is the retaliation against my client for exercising his free speech rights.

Newman also argues that Dunn is a victim of discrimination.

Let me be perfectly clear. My client, who is both a Native American and over 40, has been the victim of disparate treatment based on what you confirm as a "single situation" while other House members who have engaged in illegal and/or unprofessional conduct have not been similarly treated. Consider, for example, those representatives who have been seen publicly drunk, charged with DUI/DWI or subject to on-going investigations by the legislative ethics board for conflicts of interest.

Sekerak told Newman in a letter last week that the ban on travel and loss of committee assignments "was a step taken after discussing the situation with Representative Dunn and his admission to inappropriate conduct below the standards set by the House for a respectful workplace." He said that the state Constitution gives the House authority to discipline its members.

"At this time the House considers the matter closed."

Dunn will keep fighting, though. Newman said in his letter that he is appealing Dunn's punishment to the Executive Rules Committee. He asked for a hearing within 10 days.

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