Sen. Daniel Thatcher has lodged a criminal complaint against the top-ranking Democrat in the Utah House for an alleged assault.
Thatcher, R-West Valley City, says he and House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, got in a physical altercation last month in a hallway in the Senate building at the Utah Capitol after a verbal exchange in a parking lot earlier that day.
“He grabbed me with both hands and shoved me toward the wall and repeatedly hit my sternum with his finger while shouting that I had no idea what it’s like to be in a superminority and how dare I criticize him for partisanship,” Thatcher said Friday. “Literally, he was angry because I encouraged him to move past donkeys and elephants.”
King doesn’t deny making physical contact with Thatcher but says the allegations have been “significantly exaggerated.”
In a witness statement provided to the Utah Highway Patrol and shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, he said Thatcher had spoken “angrily” to him in the middle of the election season because he was unwilling to support the Republican’s re-election campaign.
“This struck me at the time as absurd,” King told the Highway Patrol, which provides security at the Capitol. “I’m the leader of the House Democrats. We have 13 members of our caucus. The Republicans have 62 members of their caucus.”
King naturally supported Thatcher’s Democratic challenger, Clare Collard, who lost her election bid Tuesday in Senate District 12. King was also up for re-election this cycle but ran uncontested.
King said his irritation about the conversation with Thatcher grew. And when they saw each other later that day at a Sentencing Commission meeting, King “wanted to tell him how out of line his comments to me in the garage were.”
Afterward, King said he “immediately” realized he had been overly aggressive and worked to make amends, reaching out multiple times over text to defuse the situation.
Thatcher tells a different story, saying King has denied responsibility for the incident and that after he spent a week trying unsuccessfully to resolve the issue through human resources, he decided to file the police report.
“HR can’t do anything because he’s an elected official,” Thatcher said. “And I think that elected officials should be held to the highest standards of behavior. So if someone commits a crime, they should be held accountable for that even if they’re a legislator. Maybe especially if they’re a legislator.”
King says he was never contacted by anyone from human resources.
“I’m disappointed this escalated to this point when I think I made a mistake, I owned up to it almost immediately and said I was sorry,” said King, an attorney who has served in the Legislature since 2009.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat, confirmed the case had made it to his office and said that because of his previous relationship with both lawmakers, he has reached out to a “sister jurisdiction” that will consider whether to file charges.
The other reason Thatcher said he decided to report the incident to police was because he contends the House minority leader has been aggressive with other lawmakers in the past.
“There is a pattern of aggressive and threatening behavior from Representative King,” he added, referencing an altercation he said occurred between King and Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.
McCay, a senator-elect reached for comment on Friday, confirmed that King had punched him on the arm on the House floor about three years ago over a difference of opinion on a political issue. But he said he didn’t think about it much afterward, chalking it up to the high tensions and exhaustion that come during the legislative session.
“I think [King is] a passionate guy who feels really strongly about what he’s doing and how he wants to represent his district and, you know, in that situation he let his passion get a little more physically expressive than I would prefer,” McCay said.
“Brian’s not the first and probably not the last who’s wanted to hit me for one reason or another,” he added.
In one other instance of aggressive behavior, Rep. Jim Dunnigan said Saturday that when he was majority leader in 2016 he broke up a loud and aggressive argument between King and Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, on the House floor during debate.
Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, doesn’t know who started the verbal combat or what the issue was.
“I don’t recall any physical [contact] that was going on but they were going at it very energetically, in each other’s face,” Dunnigan recalls. “I broke it up and then Brian King came over and got in my face.”
When he asked King to back off, he did so, Dunnigan said. He declined comment on whether he believed the Democrat has exhibited a pattern of overly aggressive behavior.
King said Friday he was disappointed that the issue with Thatcher had escalated to a criminal investigation and worried it would further diminish the public’s faith in the Legislature.
“I don’t think this makes either one of us look good,” he said, “and I don’t know why he would think that making an issue of this and trying to publicize it is going to be a helpful thing.”
Thatcher, too, expressed concern that the incident would widen partisan divides.
“All the Republicans are going to say, ‘See, look how violent and dangerous the liberals are,’” he said. “And all the liberals are going to say, ‘Look at this mean, horrible Republican picking on this poor, picked-on Democrat.' And no one’s going to look at the people.”
Tribune news editor Dan Harrie contributed to this report.