In an unprecedented development, the Oregon Legislature has agreed to pay $1.32 million to resolve sexual harassment complaints by eight women who worked in the Capitol.
The settlement resulted from an explosive investigation the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries completed earlier this year, after state Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), registered harassment complaints against then-Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg). The investigation found eight women who had suffered harassment by various people that ranged from unwanted touching to verbal and electronic propositioning.
Although Kruse resigned in February 2018, the BOLI investigative report also criticized legislative leadership, particularly House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), for aggressively resisting the BOLI investigation, including refusing to comply with subpoenas. It found that Kotek and Courtney "failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action to unlawful employment practices based on sex."
The size of the settlement is unprecedented in Oregon. Greg Chaimov, who once served as legislative counsel, says he can't recall a similar payout. "I don't remember the Legislature paying out a settlement to anyone for any reason," Chaimov says.
The settlement is likely to increase the scrutiny on the most powerful man in Salem—Courtney, who has presided over the Senate since 2003—to account for the culture he fostered.
On March 5, Courtney announced he would take a 10-day medical leave from the Legislature, a move some speculate could morph into his retirement.
He and Kotek issued a joint statement on the settlement. "We sincerely apologize to the women who suffered harm during their time in the Capitol," they said. "Everyone working in or visiting the State Capitol deserves to feel safe and respected. We remain committed to improving the Capitol's workplace culture."
Gelser says the BOLI settlement is a step toward addressing the sometimes toxic culture in the Capitol, but it's not enough.
"We can't just proclaim we fixed it—sexual harassment—with the formation of a Capitol culture committee and trainings," Gelser says. "Not until people in the building tell us they feel safe and don't fear retaliation—and we're a long way from that place."
Here are some key questions about what just happened—and what happens next.
Who gets the money?
WW has been able to identify six of the eight: two Kruse interns, Annie Montgomery and Adrianna Martin-Wyatt, who were placed in Kruse's office long after numerous complaints had been lodged against the senator; two staff members, including Audrey Mechling, a former legislative staffer now in graduate school in California; and two unnamed lobbyists. It's unclear who the other women are. (Gelser is not one of them.) The eight will receive a total of $1.095 million, with the rest of the settlement covering expenses for BOLI ($200,000) and Gelser ($26,612).
Who is at fault?
BOLI's report found fault with Kruse, Courtney, Kotek, and legislative counsel Dexter Johnson and human resources director Lore Christopher, who both report indirectly to Kotek and Courtney.
"Legislative leadership has really let me down throughout this process, Sen. Courtney in particular," says Mechling. She says she's disappointed that Courtney, the longest-serving lawmaker and Senate president in state history, failed to exercise his authority.
"Sen. Courtney has not only allowed harassment in his chamber to go on unimpeded for years, he has also overlooked harassment perpetrated by his own staff," Mechling says. "I believe we deserve new leadership in the Senate."
How has Courtney responded?
In the days and weeks since the BOLI report was released, the Legislature's two leaders have taken very different public courses.
After receiving complaints that state Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) had verbally abused two female colleagues, Kotek on Feb. 21 stripped Greenlick of a committee chairmanship, a rare and humbling punishment.
Courtney, however, appears to be paying lip service to the criticism. On Feb. 26, he took to the Senate floor and offered his first public comments on the harassment scandal that had gripped the Capitol for more than year. His tone was flat, seemingly without apology, and his single example of how he'd been changed by the investigation was his observation about sensitivity training he and other lawmakers took: "I myself found the training very helpful," Courtney said. "I even started to implement it in my office in terms of saying things like hello when I come in the morning and goodbye when I leave."
In a March 4 letter to Senate Democrats, Democratic Party of Oregon chairwoman Jeanne Atkins wrote that Courtney's speech caused "alarm and confusion."
Mechling says she found Courtney's comments stunning. "It is unacceptable for him to not learn anything at all from sexual harassment trainings," she tells WW. "Either the trainings were woefully lacking, or he wasn't paying attention."
Is there pressure for Courtney to leave?
Yes. For years, Courtney has been at odds with environmentalists, trial lawyers and unions that think he's not progressive enough. But harassment has galvanized his critics.
Courtney's biggest critics reside in his own caucus. They are Gelser, Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-Portland) and Sen. Jeff Golden (D-Ashland). A former GOP ally of Courtney's, Sen. Brian Boquist (R-Dallas), introduced a resolution last week calling for the censure of Courtney and his resignation as Senate president.
"President Courtney needs to step down for the good of the employees of the legislative branch, the good of the institution he claims is paramount, and the good of Oregon citizens," Boquist tells WW. "When a leader's word can no longer be trusted, then he can no longer be leader."
As WW reported ("Looking Away," Feb. 27, 2019), Courtney has a long history of failing to police sexual harassment.
Jillian Schoene, the executive director of Emerge Oregon, which has trained hundreds of women candidates, most of them Democrats, echoes Boquist. "We now have a clear pattern of behavior with Sen. Courtney," Schoene says, "of not believing women, not protecting women, and treating women differently than powerful, male counterparts."
Who wants him to stay?
Two of the most powerful women in the Senate, for starters. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) is intensely loyal to Courtney. Burdick last week circulated a letter of support for Courtney. Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland), whom Courtney named co-Senate chair of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, went further, championing Courtney in op-eds in The Oregonian and the Salem Statesman Journal.
Interestingly, Steiner Hayward, like Gelser, complained of repeated harassment by Kruse. But while Gelser (and the BOLI report) criticized Courtney's response, Steiner Hayward wrote "Sen. Courtney had my back every step of the way. I believe that he is probably more committed than anyone to making sure that what happened to me and others does not happen again."
Some Democrats fear chaos—and the loss of a vote for new taxes—if Courtney steps down. Business groups and most GOP senators are also sticking with him, fearing any replacement would be more liberal.
Who is the decider?
Gov. Kate Brown, who, like Courtney, is a Democrat, has jockeyed for power with him since at least 1999.
Now Brown holds Courtney's fate in her hands—in a moral, not a statutory sense. In 2015, when then-Gov. John Kitzhaber faced his own scandal, Kotek and Courtney advised him to resign.
The governor is neutral, says her spokeswoman, Kate Kondayen: "Gov. Brown believes that the members of the Senate are best positioned to determine their leadership and how they move forward."