SEATTLE – Before KIRO-TV fired her in 2002, King County executive candidate Susan Hutchison badmouthed the station to an intern’s mother, confronted its general manager about his offsite meetings with a female coworker, and called in sick so she could go canoeing in Oregon, according to court documents unsealed Friday.
Hutchison, a nightly news anchor at KIRO for 20 years, sued for discrimination after the station replaced her as nightly news anchor with a younger Asian American woman. The case settled out of court in 2005.
After she decided to run for the highest office in the state’s most populous county, news organizations including The Associated Press sought to have records in the case unsealed, and King County Superior Court Judge Tim Bradshaw agreed, releasing the first of the documents Friday.
The documents show that KIRO claimed it replaced Hutchison on some newscasts because the station’s anchors often ranked behind Seattle’s other major network newscasts. But Hutchison suggested there had been a lengthy campaign by some at the station to humiliate her, and she took a stress-related medical leave before being fired.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The station hired Kristy Lee, then 31, to replace Hutchison, a 20-year veteran, on the most prominent evening newscasts in early 2002. That spring, Hutchison was told she’d be moved into the noon and 5 p.m. slots, and she was upset about it, former KIRO general manager John Woodin said in an affidavit.
In notes filed as an exhibit in the lawsuit, Hutchison wrote that on June 5, she asked Woodin a question “which I worded very carefully”: Why was he spending so much time with the coworker, whom she described as attractive, vivacious and gay?
According to Hutchison’s notes, the two were regularly out of the office for several hours at a time, even during the important May ratings period, and people at the station were curious. Woodin replied, “What do they think, I’ve made her straight? I’m not that good.”
He went on to say the two left the office to get some privacy so they could talk about personnel issues. Woodin is no longer with the station; his attorney did not immediately return a call or e-mail seeking comment Friday.
“The events described in these documents took place many years ago and generally do not involve our current management team or employees,” KIRO said in a news release.
Around the same time as the discussion with Woodin, Hutchison told the mother of Katie Vehrs, a University of Washington student who was interning at KIRO, that “I didn’t think her daughter would benefit from the situation she was in,” referring to sexual misconduct and drug use at the station. Hutchison said Woodin met the young woman at a Seattle SuperSonics game and offered her an internship before the game was over.
On July 3, 2002, Hutchison called in sick through July 5, Woodin said in his affidavit. She had previously been told she couldn’t take vacation those days, but a coworker reported seeing her canoeing in Bend, Ore.; in her notes, Hutchison acknowledged as much.
The station suspended her for five days, and in August 2002 offered to let her keep the noon newscast at a salary of $150,000 – a pay cut of more than 50 percent, according to Hutchison. Hutchison never responded, Woodin said, and she took a stress-related medical leave beginning that September.
“The decision to move Hutchison to the noon news and special assignments was based on our evaluation of what was needed for a quality news product in this market area, and this decision and change had been in the works since 2001,” Woodin said. “Hutchison’s actions concerning the July 4 sick leave and speaking poorly of KIRO to Vehr’s mother were of concern to us but had nothing to do with her on-the-air assignments.”
Hutchison’s notes presented a different picture. She wrote that Woodin told her on July 11 or 12: “I think it’s time for you to go. You know, you asked me about (the coworker), and you’ve been saying negative things about me, and then there’s the two days you called in sick.”
She added that two other anchors could have filled in for her on those sick days.
“There was no reason to deny me those days off except to humiliate me,” Hutchison wrote. “That constant effort by the company to diminish me in the eyes of the viewers, my colleagues and the industry (where I would be trying to find a job eventually) had worn me down physically and emotionally.”
Hutchison released a video statement Friday saying that a confidentiality provision in the settlement agreement barred her from discussing the case. KIRO’s lawyer insisted the provision was not that broad, and only barred her from disclosing the terms of the settlement itself.
“My lips are sealed, even as these documents are unsealed,” Hutchison said.