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Governor, lawmakers call on Washington insurance commissioner to resign

Courtesy of Office of the Insurance Commissioner

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the state Democratic Party and a growing chorus of state lawmakers are calling on elected Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, a 78-year-old, six-term Democrat, to resign following allegations of mistreatment of staff, the use of racially offensive language and the recent firing of an employee who formally complained.

"The events of the last several months demonstrate he is unable to fulfill his leadership responsibility," Inslee said in a statement Friday. "Therefore it’s my belief we need different leadership in this position and I believe he should resign."

Also Friday, the chair and vice chair of Washington State Democrats, Tina Podlodowski and David Green, said Kreidler "can no longer faithfully serve the people of Washington state, and we call for him to step down."

"To fire a whistleblower — someone who had the courage to step forward in the first place — is not only unacceptable and unethical, but directly goes against the Democratic values of our party," the statement said.

Not since former state Auditor Troy Kelley was indicted in 2015 for crimes related to his prior real estate business has a statewide elected official been urged to resign by the governor and other state and party leaders.

Pressure on Kreidler to step aside began building Thursday when the top Democrat and the top Republican in the Washington state Senate issued statements urging him to leave office.

They were joined by the Democratic chair and the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees the insurance industry.

Since then other state lawmakers, including House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox along with state Sen. Patty Kuderer of Bellevue and state Rep. Jessica Bateman of Olympia, both Democrats, have used Twitter to express their views on the matter.

"Workers who have the courage to come forward and blow the whistle should not have to fear workplace retaliation. Period. We should expect more, especially from an elected official managing a state agency," Bateman wrote.

In a tweet thread Wilcox wrote: "Although he has had an impressive career in service, including many years of military service, it will be overshadowed by his bad behavior towards quality staff members and clinging to office far beyond a reasonable term," Wilcox wrote.

Kreidler retired from the Army Reserves as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years.

On Friday, Kreidler issued a statement saying he has no plans to leave office.

“I take full responsibility for my past behavior and recognize the impact it has had on those around me and the people I serve," Kreider said in the statement. "I have pledged to do better and stand by that commitment. At the same time, I intend to continue serving alongside the dedicated people of our agency and to work on the important consumer protection issues ahead.”

As an independently elected statewide official, Kreidler can’t be forced to leave office. His current four-year term runs through 2024.

The wave of calls for Kreidler to step down came after the Northwest News Network reported Wednesday that Kreidler’s office had fired an employee, Jon Noski, who in February submitted a written complaint about Kreidler’s treatment of staff.

In April, the Northwest News Network and The Seattle Times jointly reported on allegations from previous and potential Office of Insurance Commissioner (OIC) employees that Kreidler had, on occasion, used derogatory terms for people of different ethnicities and once used an offensive term to describe transgender women, as well as asked employees of color for unusual favors.

Kreidler subsequently issued an apology.

“I had serious concerns regarding the Insurance Commissioner following the initial troubling reports of his behavior toward OIC employees,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, in his statement Thursday.

“Now that he’s decided to fire the employee who had the courage to come forward in the first place, it’s become clear that the Insurance Commissioner did not learn from these past incidents and I believe it is time for him to step down.”

In a separate statement, Senate Republican Leader John Braun of Centralia called the initial allegations of staff mistreatment by Kreidler “disturbing on their own.”

“But firing a whistleblower is completely unacceptable, and quite frankly, the final straw,” Braun said.

Also calling for Kreidler’s resignation were Sens. Mark Mullet and Perry Dozier, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Business, Financial Services and Trade Committee with oversight of the insurance industry.

“Commissioner Kreidler has shown he is not fit to continue in his position,” Mullet said in his statement. “The role of this agency is too important to spend the next two-and-a-half years with staff afraid to speak up when they see something wrong.”

Added Dozier: “I agree with my colleagues and leaders in both parties, enough is enough. It is time for Kreidler to go so that someone who can effectively and ethically do the critical work of this office can step in."

The calls for resignation came less than 24 hours after the announcement of Noski’s termination. Noski served as Kreidler’s legislative liaison, a role that required him to advocate with lawmakers on behalf of the insurance commissioner’s office.

In February, Noski submitted a written complaint detailing instances of mistreatment by Kreidler. It included a particularly harsh dressing down of Noski following a legislative committee hearing on the use of credit scores by insurance companies — an issue of particular concern to Kreidler.

“The commissioner said that I am an impotent embarrassment who might need to be replaced because of my incompetence,” Noski wrote in his complaint. “The commissioner said I must enjoy getting pissed on and asked if he needed to wipe my ass.”

The Northwest News Network first reported on Noski's complaint in March.

In an interview at the time, Kreidler didn’t deny the allegations, but said he would dispute some of the specifics.

Other current and former insurance commissioner staff also told the Northwest News Network they had been subject to or witnessed what they described as Kreidler’s growing volatility and mistreatment of some employees.

“I’m talking about meanness, deliberately cutting people down publicly to humiliate them, not letting bygones be bygones,” one former employee who asked not to be identified said.

For his part, Kreidler said in a February interview that he was “surprised” and “saddened” to hear his conduct was having a negative effect on staff and said it wasn’t his intention.

“I'm going to double down to make sure that I am more careful in dealing with people,” Kreidler said at the time. “Quite frankly it wasn't an issue that was front and center for me.”

Ultimately, Noski’s complaint was dismissed without an investigation after Kreidler’s chief deputy determined that there was no basis to consider action against Kreidler.

Noski, an at-will employee with no civil service protection, was fired on Tuesday, the day he returned from medical leave.

On Friday, Kreidler, in his statement, said that he couldn't comment on the details of personnel matters, but said "the conclusion that an important and valued employee's departure was because he filed a complaint against me is not true and does not reflect the full context of the story."

In an email to OIC staff on Friday, Michael Wood, the agency's chief deputy, said the decision to terminate Noski "was not an easy one" and said it followed "a number of exchanges and conversations that took place in an effort to find a path forward that would allow Jon to remain a part of the policy and legislative team at OIC."

Wood, in his email, also noted that Noski had been offered a different position within the agency.

"I know that the suggestion that this decision was simply a response to a complaint being filed (it was not) makes it harder for all of us to move forward in a way that encourages honest feedback and discussions — and even complaints — as a way to identify issues and to make the OIC a better place to work," Wood wrote in the email, a copy of which the Northwest News Network obtained.

Noski's attorney previously told the Northwest Network that prior to her client complaining about Kreidler there had been no discussion of moving Noski to a different role, nor had he been subject to any discipline or advised that he was facing termination.

Reached Friday, Noski said: "I've shared my concerns regarding Commissioner Kreidler's leadership of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner and treatment of staff members. It appears that other state leaders are voicing similar concerns."

This story has been updated.