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Mayor Murray spokesman has abuse, sexual harassment allegations in his past, too

KUOW/Isolde Raftery
Lines from the protection order sought by a woman in Seattle against Benton Strong in 2007. Strong was former Mayor Ed Murray's spokesman.

Benton Strong, the spokesman who stood by embattled Mayor Ed Murray to the end, has been revealed to have a checkered past of his own.

A Buzzfeed investigation says Strong sexually harassed a former coworker when he worked at a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., where he was the communications director.

From Buzzfeed reporter Sarah Mimms’ report: “Strong had asked several women on the team if they had been flashed or masturbated in front of and then mocked a woman in a team meeting for saying she had cried when it happened to her.”

[asset-audio[{"description": "KUOW's Kim Malcolm talks with Buzzfeed reporter Sarah Mimms about her investigation.", "fid": "144266", "uri": "public://201804/NEWS_20180424_BUZZFEED.mp3"}]]The Buzzfeed report, published Monday night, also notes a restraining order filed in 2007 in King County Superior Court by an ex-girlfriend. Strong and this young woman were roommates and attended the University of Washington. KUOW obtained that report; details are below.

Strong’s personnel file, released Tuesday by the city of Seattle, suggests the city heard rumors about sexual harassment after Strong arrived in the mayor's office. His personnel report includes chicken-scratch notes about prior allegations of harassment – and vague emails about sexual harassment from the Center for American Progress, the think tank.

From the handwritten notes: “For his job – mayor – knows we need this info.” But it's unclear how much the city knew, given how much of the personnel report was blacked out when released to journalists.

Strong was known among Seattle journalists for being a bully, one who sent nasty emails late at night. He did this in defending Murray after the mayor was accused of raping and sexually abusing five teenage boys. 

Murray resigned in mid-September last year; Strong resigned from the mayor’s office two weeks later.

Although the allegations were known, in some form, he was hired by the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment the following month. He resigned from that job this month after Buzzfeed started asking questions.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Benton Strong in a 2011 photo. Strong was accused of sexual harassment in Washington, D.C., before moving to the City of Seattle.", "fid": "144201", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201804/stronginset.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Flickr Photo/Obama for America - Washington"}]]2007 domestic violence case

In 2007, Strong dated one of his roommates in Seattle. When the relationship ended, he began to stalk her, she said in a protection order granted in King County Superior Court.

The woman said that Strong cornered her in their bathroom and pushed her down when she tried to leave. Two roommates helped her break out of the bathroom.

Strong “threatened to jump off a bridge,” she wrote the court. “He also cut his wrists.” He had tried to jump out of a car she was driving, she added; he stole her phone; he called her a slut and a whore.

“Can’t you see what you do to me baby?” he messaged her, according to court documents. “You make me crazy. You make me act like a maniac I’m like a lunatic, you make me sick. You’re truly the only one who can do this to me. You just make me get so crazy I go schizo I get so insane I just go schizophrenic.”

The woman kept a journal. During Thanksgiving week 2007, Strong followed her through the University of Washington campus, according to her journal, even though she told him to leave her alone. Later that day, she wrote that she saw him peering into her room.

From her journal: “I had my blinds open and he stood right outside watching me and so I shut them. He then punched my window so hard his knuckle started bleeding.”

The protection order includes a four-page, handwritten letter that Strong wrote her. There’s blood on the letter, which scared the woman. Strong later said the blood got there by accident.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The first page of a letter from Benton Strong to his ex-girlfriend, who filed a protection order against him in King County Superior Court. Strong was later accused of sexual harassment at a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.", "fid": "144204", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201804/blood.JPG", "attribution": "Credit King County Superior Court"}]]From think tank to Mayor Murray’s office

Strong was hired to be an associate communications director at the Center for American Progress in 2014. He was in his late 20s, a native Seattleite working at an elite, progressive outfit in D.C.

Two years later, directors at the think tank met with Strong to discuss a report of him and others “making inappropriate jokes during a team meeting,” according to an HR email to Strong. He was told to stop.

Three months later, in July 2016, he was suspended for three days with pay for what appears to be a second allegation. By then he was one foot out the door; the city of Seattle had offered him a job as the communications director for Mayor Ed Murray. He would earn $135,000 per year.

Strong’s background did raise a red flag for the city.

From handwritten notes made after he arrived: “He admitted inappropriate rel. Does not know if she alleged … quest to him: did you send messages inappropriate or cross the line?”

Even after the city received documents compiled by the Center for American Progress, Strong kept his job.

Within months, men started accusing Murray of abusing them sexually when they were kids. Strong remained steadfast in his defense of the mayor, texting and emailing reporters, questioning their ability as journalists, and sometimes sending cryptic messages.

That was bewildering to reporters who had been told, repeatedly, that the mayor was keeping the accusations about himself separate from work. Why then was Strong, whose salary was paid by the city, running defense for the mayor’s private life?

Strong did not respond to requests for comment from KUOW. But he told Buzzfeed in a statement: 

I made mistakes that I regret during my time living in Washington, D.C. My actions hurt someone, let down friends and colleagues, and created a difficult work environment. For that I apologize. Looking back, her brave step to report these actions represented a turning point in my own life, as I came to better understand how my actions were hurting people around me. What I learned from those mistakes has helped me to grow and change in these last two years and will continue doing so.

KUOW's Patricia Murphy and John Ryan contributed reporting.