Peter Courtney’s Failure To Protect Women From Sexual Harassment Goes Back Decades

Two women at Western Oregon University said Courtney, then the assistant president at WOU, failed to act when they complained. The university paid both women settlements and their lawyer identified many more victims.

When Leah Mangis walks the Peter Courtney pedestrian bridge in Salem, the beauty of the new span across the Willamette River conflicts with her ugly memories.

In 2000, Mangis, then an undergraduate at Western Oregon University, went to visit Courtney, who was both a powerful state lawmaker and assistant to the university president.

Mangis told Courtney that she had been sexually harassed by a senior faculty member.

She'd gone to the professor whose approval she needed to complete her degree. The professor made comments about how "sexy" she was, and insisted she read a sexual poem aloud. He subjected her to unwanted touching and pressed her to work as his assistant. At the suggestion of other faculty members, Mangis approached Courtney, who, among other duties, handled harassment claims for the university.

"He said 'this is definitely sexual harassment but there's nothing I can do,'" Mangis, 40, recalls.

So Mangis hired a lawyer.

Not long after, her lawyer, Martin Dolan, sent a letter to the university's president, stating that Western had a larger problem than just one complaint. "Several other current and former female students of the university have reported sexual harassing behavior [about the same faculty member]," Dolan wrote. "These reports were made to Mr. Courtney over at least a ten-year period."

In 2001, Mangis' attorney prepared a draft of a federal lawsuit naming Western Oregon and Courtney as defendants, claiming "Western Oregon and Peter Courtney were deliberately indifferent to the sexual harassment [Mangis] suffered."

Prior to the lawsuit being filed, the university settled the case out of court in December 2001 for $110,000.

In written responses to questions from WW, Courtney noted Mangis' lawsuit was never filed.

"While I can't comment on personnel matters related to [Western Oregon], I always took every complaint seriously," Courtney said in a statement on Feb. 23. "I routinely consulted with the Attorney General's office on how to proceed then worked with the responsible party to resolve the complaint, usually the provost."

Four years later, Rosemary Garcia brought a lawsuit against WOU, naming Courtney.

She said she'd been harassed by a different male professor and she faulted Courtney, whom she said did nothing. "Courtney knew of [the defendant's] pattern and practice of sexual harassment and refused to take any action on any complaints against him," the lawsuit said.

Courtney claims he has no knowledge of Garcia or the circumstances of her complaint and notes he was removed from the lawsuit before it was resolved.

The university also settled Garcia's lawsuit before it went to trial, for $65,000 in February 2005. Garcia could not be reached for comment.

These incidents are resurfacing now because of the current, unfolding story of sexual harassment in the Capitol.

And while no one has accused Courtney himself of any harassment, the longest serving Senate President in state history is under fire for much the same reason Mangis and Garcia criticized him more than a decade ago—for allegedly not responding adequately to complaints about harassment.

In the current case, that allegation involves complaints about the behavior of state Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg), who eventually resigned in February 2018 after complaints that he'd harassed lawmakers and interns. A subsequent state investigation found Courtney and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek (D-Portland) had done little about that and other alleged instances of harassment.

Related: A searing investigation of workplace culture in the Legislature spotlights Oregon's most powerful lawmaker.

On Feb. 15, a former legislative lawyer, Gail Stevens, filed a lawsuit alleging that Kotek and Courtney failed to protect her after she accused the Legislature's top lawyer and human resources director of retaliating against her for reporting gender discrimination and unlawful conduct. Four days later, another lawsuit was filed, this time by two former legislative interns, Adrianna Martin-Wyatt and Anne Montgomery, who named Courtney and alleged that he failed to discipline Kruse, who the suit claims, subjected the interns to repeated sexual harassment.

Courtney has rejected the criticism, and says he's done everything he can to protect women throughout his career at WOU and in the Legislature.

"I don't sweep things under the rug. I'm direct. I follow through," Courtney told WW on Feb. 23. "The president of the Senate is not a CEO. I am limited—by the constitution—in my ability to discipline members of the legislature."

Leah Mangis says she finds Courtney's defense unconvincing.

"In my opinion and experience Courtney has a history of marginalizing victims of violence—sexual harassment and discrimination. His lack of follow through and actions support the ideology that violence against women and all other individuals, is OK, it's tolerated here, 'expected, and acceptable. This is not the actions of a man of integrity," Mangis tells WW.

"When I walk over Peter Courtney pedestrian bridge, I am deeply saddened that an elected official, a Democrat, has treated me and many other women, students, staff at the Capitol the same by tolerating and excusing the behavior of the perpetrators. He is in a position of power—as a Caucasian, as a male and as the president of the Senate."

Although the last several weeks have been uncomfortable ones for Peter Michael Coleman Courtney, the 75-year-old is an institution in Oregon. He first won election to the Legislature in 1980, the year Mt. St. Helens erupted, and except for brief interludes, has served there ever since.

A lawyer and retired assistant to the president at WOU (the university's health and wellness center is named after him), he's an animal lover, a compulsive recycler and a devoted member of the Salem YMCA, where he lived when he first moved to Oregon from the East Coast.

With his shock of unruly white hair, a gravelly southern accent evocative of his West Virginia upbringing and a hangdog expression, Courtney is as much a symbol of the Legislature as the gilt-covered pioneer atop the Capitol Dome. Since 2003, Oregon has had six House speakers, three governors but only one Senate President: Courtney, who wields more power than any other lawmaker. He retains loyal allies.

"He's a highly moral guy," says state Sen. Lee Beyer (D-Springfield). "He puts the good of the institution above everything else."

Beyer says despite criticism from Senate Democrats including Sens. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) and Shemia Fagan (D-Portland), Courtney enjoys strong support in his caucus and from Senate Republicans.

"He's probably the fairest leader we've had since I entered the Legislature in 1991," Beyer says.

Former state Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem), who retired in 2016 after a dozen years in the Legislature, was part of a recently completed Oregon Law Commission task force on sexual harassment in the Capitol. She says she hopes the blueprint the OLC laid out for lawmakers—better training, clearer reporting mechanisms and swifter responses—will improve conditions for women in the Capitol.

She's not sure Courtney can implement such changes.

Berger, who considers Courtney a friend and has served on a nonprofit board in Salem with him for years, thinks he has simply been in power too long. "At his age and given the circumstances and the changing nature of the social contract, it will be very difficult," Berger says.

In 2015, when then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, who had recently won re-election, was engulfed in an influence-peddling scandal, Courtney, a fellow Democrat, called on him to resign, saying his continued service would be a distraction.

"He was the president of the Oregon State Senate for a record number of years," Courtney said of Kitzhaber then. "He was elected and has served as Oregon's governor for more than 12 years—longer than anyone else. No public servant has given more to Oregon."

Now, some leading Democrats are saying that same thing about Courtney.

Former House Majority Leader Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland) who overlapped with Courtney for 13 years in Salem, tells WW that she's deeply disappointed with her former colleague.

"I believe the women," says Nolan, who two decades ago as co-chair of the bi-partisan group Oregonians for Ethical Representation demanded the resignation of former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), after multiple accusations of Packwood's sexual harassment of women. "Courtney doesn't get a pass from me just because we are both on the same team. As a Democrat, I expect more from him and that includes immediately curing a hostile work environment."

"If the Senate president can't or won't make sure that women who work in the Capitol are safe," Nolan adds, "he is disqualified from that position of public trust."

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