To expel or not to expel Matt Shea, that may be the question

Results of a private investigation could put the fate of GOP lawmaker in front of the House in 2020.

OLYMPIA — Nelson G. Robinson holds the ignoble distinction of being the first lawmaker expelled from the state House of Representatives.

Matt Shea could be the second — if he doesn’t walk away on his own.

Robinson, a Seattle Democrat elected in November 1932, received the historically unceremonious boot Jan. 17, 1933 on a 93-5 vote after House leaders corralled every member then ordered the doors of the chambers locked.

He had been convicted in December of “carnally knowing and abusing” a 12-year-old girl. But Gov. Roland Hartley, in one of his last acts before leaving office and returning home to Everett, pardoned Robinson on the eve of the session thus enabling him to be sworn in.

His tenure didn’t last long. A five-member House investigating committee reviewed the criminal case, heard from Robinson, and recommended he be kicked out. The debate and vote took less than two hours, according to the Journal of the House.

Shea, a Spokane Republican, has not been charged with any crime. At least not yet. Still, he could face ouster next year for, to put it politely, conduct unbecoming a citizen legislator.

Private investigators hired by the Democrat-controlled House are assessing the extent to which Shea’s efforts to reshape the world in line with his views pose a threat to his political foes, fellow lawmakers and the institution in which he’s served since 2009.

The House has a $120,000 contract with Rampart, a Silverdale firm run by a couple of ex-law enforcement officers. Investigators are right now combing through a trove of Shea communiques including emails, chat room conversations and online publications.

Their contracted task is to determine whether Shea has engaged in, planned or promoted political violence against groups or individuals and to identify the extent of his involvement with groups or individuals who promote, engage in or plan political violence. It also will assess the level of threat of political violence posed by these individuals and groups.

Rampart, initially, will be catching up to — and tapping the same sources as — The Guardian and The Spokesman-Review which have been reporting on Shea’s involvement and interactions with political extremists for months. Shea’s been mostly mum with each new revelation. In November 2018 he reportedly took to Facebook to decry criticism as “smears and slander.”

We’ve already learned about a manifesto Shea penned laying out “Biblical basis for war.” There are emails linking him to a religious group that trained children and young men for religious combat. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane has chronicled the state lawmaker’s attempts to surveil progressive leaders in town.

A preliminary report is due Sept. 30 and a final one by Dec. 1.

The dossier they compile will be the foundation for conversation in the 2020 session. There’s a range of potential responses from expressions of indignation — which House Democrats have done — to stripping Shea of any positions of power — which House Republicans can do — to reprimanding, censuring or even expelling Shea.

The state Constitution lets the House and the Senate police themselves in such matters. Under Article 2, Section 9, it says each chamber can “punish for contempt and disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all the members elected, expel a member.”

At a minimum and aside from any punishment, if Shea opts for re-election, the final product from Rampart will give any opponent the best opposition research public money can buy.

This situation will test the mettle of incoming House speaker, Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.

In May, she and the rest of her caucus called on House Republican leaders to publicly reprimand Shea. That hasn’t quite happened.

In a letter, Democrats made clear they’d thought Shea had already crossed the line, noting that if lawmakers remained “indifferent” then “we believe that as a legislative body we will not truly serve all our constituents and this institution.”

Jinkins said Tuesday she’s not pondering a path toward punishment right now. “It’s important to complete the investigation,” she said. “I don’t know what it will uncover.”

Expulsion is on the table but Democratic Reps. Strom Peterson of Edmonds and Mike Sells of Everett said this week they aren’t ready to publicly embrace it. They, too, want to see the results of the investigation.

“That’s a tough decision,” Peterson said of kicking Shea out, “because he is duly elected by the people in his district.”

Given only one House member has ever been expelled, it may fall to those voters to decide Shea’s fate.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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Don C. Brunell is a regional columnist.