Labor Commissioner Issues Damning Final Report On Sexual Harassment in Oregon Capitol

Investigation finds legislative leadership failed to address multiple complaints over several years.

Oregon State Capitol (Edmund Garman / Flickr)

Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian ends his term this week—and he dropped a bomb on Salem less than a month before the 2019 session of the Oregon Legislature is set to begin.

Avakian today produced a 52-page investigative report that includes "substantial evidence" of numerous instances of Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), referred to as "respondents" in the report, failing to address sexual harassment in the Capitol.

Here's the gist of the findings:

Courtney took issue with BOLI's findings.

"I disagree with many of the assertions in the Commissioner's report. I have never knowingly allowed harassment to go on. I have taken severe actions beyond my authority to stop it. I will continue to work as hard as I can to create a workplace free of harassment," Courtney said in a statement. "The Legislature will move forward with the process we began last year. The Joint Committee on Capitol Culture will work in the 2019 session to update our laws and rules to make the Capitol a model workplace."

Kotek was also displeased.

"I have and will continue to take seriously all complaints of workplace harassment," Kotek said in a statement. "While I am still carefully reviewing the Commissioner's determination, my initial reaction is disappointment and frustration. It's just not okay that anyone who has worked in the Capitol has experienced harassment or inappropriate behavior. But it is utterly false to conclude that I have knowingly allowed people to be harassed in the Capitol, and I dispute how the report has characterized my conversations about incidents of harassment. On the contrary, I have been very clear that we need to be a model workplace and continue to do everything in my power to improve the Legislature's culture."

The report comes after months of legal wrangling between Avakian and legislative leadership over whether his agency had the authority to investigate allegations of workplace misconduct in the Capitol.

Neither side appeared virtuous in the dispute. Legislative leaders in effect took the position that although they make the laws, they are above those laws. And although Avakian is, like legislative leaders, a Democrat, some people think he remains angry at the Democratic establishment for failing to sufficiently support him in his 2016 loss to Republican Dennis Richardson in the secretary of state's race.

But whatever his motivation, Avakian produced a jaw-dropping look at misbehavior, mismanagement and politically-driven inertia in the Capitol.

Much of the report exhumes previously reported details of the downfall of former Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg) who was forced to resign last year after harassment complaints filed by Sens. Sara Gelser (D-Covallis) and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland).

But there is vastly more detail in the new report than has previously been made public about who said what to whom—and many of those previously unreported details could make for awkward moments in the upcoming session.

Here are some of the notable revelations, with page numbers.

Page 32: Gelser and Courtney's recent conversation in a coffee shop during a Senate Democratic retreat in Salishan went nuclear.

In an interview with BOLI, Gelser said she told Courtney she was disappointed in how the legislative counsel handled complaints and how Courtney himself responded.

"At that point he freaked out and was yelling at me that I didn't understand," Gelser told BOLI. "I didn't understand how hard this was on him…and how dare I suggest that he not care about people or that he's done nothing. And it was just a lot of this stuff. And ultimately it became a disturbance in the restaurant. His wife asked him to go."

Page 34:  The Senate Republicans' initial response to Gelser's complaint against Kruse was to consider suing Gelser.

Gelser told BOLI about a conversation she'd had with state Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend), who she said called to offer his support after her complaint against Kruse became public. "Gelser stated that Senator Knopp alerted her that the Senate caucus leadership were in discussions with Senator Kruse about how he could sue her, and how they could have her expelled from the Legislature for having this brought forward," the report says. No such lawsuit was filed.

Page 36: Gelser says House Speaker Tina Kotek withheld support because Gelser was an insufficiently likable victim.

After Gelser's complaint became public, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, state Treasurer Tobias Read, state Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend) and Democratic Party of Oregon chairwoman Jeanne Atkins called on Kruse to resign but legislative leaders, including Kotek and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) did not. Gelser told BOLI she called them to ask why they hadn't called for Kruse's resignation.

"I talked with the Speaker and Jennifer Williamson and they both informed me that [Senate Majority Leader] Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) specifically called them and asked them not to do that," Gelser told BOLI. "I called Ginny and Ginny said something to the effect of she wanted results and I wanted to grandstand."

Gelser said she later talked to Kotek again. "She said, you know, couldn't I help her find some other people to talk to because, you know, this was very political and the problem was, people don't like me [Gelser]," Gelser told BOLI. "She's like, people don't like you and I was talking to a Republican today and they're like, you know, this would be a problem but [Gelser]'s just not very likeable."

Page 39: Kruse's downfall was cigarettes, not harassment.

Legislative counsel Dexter Johnson filed repeated complaints about Kruse's smoking in his Capitol office. And Courtney's chief of staff, Betsy Imholt told BOLI that issue—not harassment complaints—caused Courtney to consider disciplining Kruse. "While discussing January/February 2017 the start of the session in February 'we pull [Kruse] off of one of his important assignments, actually…and that was because of Senator Courtney's frustration with his unwillingness to comply with the smoking [laws]," Imholt told BOLI.

It will now fall to Avakian's successor, Commissioner-elect Val Hoyle, who takes office on Monday, to decide what penalty or other consequences are in order.

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