Investigation Sheds Light on Tenure of Fired Director of Washington Equity Office


OLYMPIA — A monthslong investigation into Karen A. Johnson, the former state Office of Equity director, found several issues with how she treated workers, including that at times her conduct suggested bias or insensitivity.

The investigation, provided to The Seattle Times on Tuesday through a records request, sheds more light on Johnson's two-year tenure as the first director of the Office of Equity, which was created by law in 2020.

Johnson was fired May 17, and last week the governor's office said the Office of Equity was spending a fraction of its allocated budget and faced high vacancy rates and turnover. Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said Tuesday that Johnson was not fired because of the investigation.

The investigation began in November but wasn't completed until Friday, nine days after Johnson was fired. Investigators found Johnson micromanaged and made unreasonable requests to employees, "was disorganized and lacked adequate structure and process," "made inappropriate or insensitive comments to some staff members," and publicly criticized some workers.

The investigation, spurred by claims of Johnson's inappropriate workplace behavior by "multiple individuals" working in the Office of Financial Management and the Office of Equity, was conducted by MFR Law Group, of Mill Creek.

In an email, Johnson said she was saddened by the investigation.

"Two things sadden me about this investigation," Johnson said. "First, I was never given the opportunity to seek reconciliation with the people who obviously feel I harmed them and, second, my right to learn about and respond to those allegations was taken away from me without my consent. To the people I harmed, please forgive me. To the people who violated my due process, I forgive you."

In a statement, Faulk said "the governor expects agency leaders to promote a workplace culture of inclusion and belonging."

"Every state employee should feel safe and welcome at work," Faulk said. "This report's findings confirm that wasn't the case at the Office of Equity. As we seek new leadership for this agency, restoring that culture will be a top priority."

Investigators conducted a wide-ranging review of Johnson's workplace conduct. They interviewed witnesses, including 11 former and current employees of the Office of Equity, and reviewed about 2,600 pages of documents including complaints, organizational charts and personnel files.

The governor's office has been billed and has paid about $62,000 for the investigation, Faulk said. Faulk did not have confirmation that the office had received the last invoice from investigators, he said.

Since the office was set up in 2021, 17 employees, including Johnson, were hired. Three people resigned in 2022 and two resigned in 2023.

"Each of the individuals who resigned attributed their decision to leave, at least in part, to a chaotic, overburdened, and disrespectful workplace culture created by Dr. Johnson," investigators wrote.

Employees raised several concerns, including a lack of organizational process and procedures, micromanagement, and a lack of work-life balance, as well as "inappropriate or insensitive comments."

One employee was "publicly chastised" for attending a meeting they had been invited to at the governor's office without getting permission or notifying Johnson, and another reported being "shamed" by Johnson in a private meeting and in public.

Investigators said several people raised concerns of "biased and insensitive conduct," including stereotyping and bias based on gender, bias against Mexicans, and tokenism related to military veteran status.

Two people "were told to wear makeup, specifically lipstick," according to the report, a claim Johnson denied. Johnson also made comments about people's hair, commented on someone's weight and suggested that person "needed to take care of herself," according to the report, and "regularly" spoke of one person as a "military hire."

According to the report, one person described Johnson as having made a statement biased against Mexican people.

"During a group discussion, Dr. Johnson said of a staff member who self-identified as Mexican, 'This may take some time for me because I generally distrust Mexican people. Mexican people have the option of being white when it is convenient for them,' " the report says. That person confirmed the statement but did not have concerns about being treated unfairly, according to the report.

Another person, who is Hispanic, said in an exit interview that Johnson was "a brilliant, charismatic person, but she still has her flaws."

"I understand what this office is about and what it's supposed to be doing," the person said. "But I feel like at times there is very much an 'Us vs. Them' mentality. Meaning, People of Color vs. people who don't look like us. A lot of that rhetoric continues to be stated in meetings, get togethers, etc."

Some also reported concerns about Johnson's references to God and religion in the workplace. One person reported they were concerned after Johnson asked staff at two welcome breakfasts in 2022 to "join hands and discuss things for which they were thankful" and "ended the discussion with a Christian prayer," according to the investigation.

Each person investigators interviewed said they were not claiming they had been discriminated against or harassed, according to the report. But five of 11 current and former equity office employees raised concerns about Johnson's workplace conduct, "articulating" what could be violations of policies around equal employment opportunities and prevention of workplace harassment, the report said.

According to the report, investigators interviewed Johnson in mid-February. Johnson described "challenges" she encountered as director, the report says. According to a summary of Johnson's interview in the report, Johnson had to document "poor performance" of staff who "operated like they needed a boss to tell them what to do."

"Externally, Johnson felt unheard, left out of the loop, and set up to fail," investigators wrote in their summary, saying that Johnson "felt like key information was being withheld from her." Johnson also described in an interview that she and her staff were a "team of Avengers," according to the investigators' summary.

"Do Captain America or T'Challa have time to micromanage?" the summary of the interview states. "Johnson and her staff are the 'McKinsey' of equity, meaning they are innovators."

Investigators did not conduct a follow-up interview. It had been rescheduled because Johnson was on leave.

On March 22, investigators contacted Johnson to confirm a follow-up interview two days later, but did not hear back by noon the next day, assumed Johnson was still on leave and canceled it.

After that, on March 30, in a statement to investigators attached to an email, Johnson said she was choosing to waive her "right to reschedule" the meeting set for March 24.

"If this decision means that, by default, what has been said about me without me stands as fact, so be it," Johnson said, saying she did not want to participate "in this triangulating behavior."

"My truth is that I am more than willing to make myself available to meet with you and the person(s) bringing the allegation(s)/concern(s), as is my custom," she said. "Seeking reconciliation is more important to me than seeking to prove who is right."

"Finally, it goes against my nature to engage in a public diatribe, especially with people whom I respect, value, and appreciate for simply being vibranium (a gift)," Johnson wrote. "My destiny depends on this decision and destiny demands that I move forward."

Governor appoints acting director

Last week, Inslee appointed Megan Matthews, the office's director of shared power design, as acting director.

In a message to the governor's cabinet and staff on Thursday, Chief of Staff Jamila Thomas and Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly Wicker said Matthews' appointment "brings some welcome stability to the agency."

"Launching a new office like this requires boldness and audacity, and we are grateful Dr. Johnson could bring that spirit to this work," Thomas and Wicker wrote. "Sustaining that work, however, also requires that Equity's leader is able to utilize the agency's full team and empower and support them to do their best work. We have a responsibility to ensure that this agency is established upon the strong foundation needed to meet its mandate and advance equity and justice for all."

In a joint statement Tuesday, the members of color caucuses and Black legislative caucus in the Washington Legislature said the governor's appointment of an interim director signaled "the importance and immediacy that the work of the Office of Equity continues."

"As the process moves forward, we remain committed to ensuring that the Office of Equity is successful," they said. "We know that dismantling systems is hard work and more than just bold statements or fancy reports."

They asked that the governor include the state's ethnic commissions and agencies, "as well as new voices and representation," in choosing the office's next permanent director.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Jamila Thomas, the governor's chief of staff.