Previously unreported emails cast new light on a long-running investigation into whether gubernatorial candidate and former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) unfairly punished a fellow Democrat, former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, for refusing to vote with her on a 2019 bill that cut public employee benefits.
“She personally and politically threatened me when I vocally articulated why I wasn’t going to vote for a bill,” Hernandez wrote in the complaint he submitted to the Legislative Equity Office on Jan. 25, 2021. “The speaker met with me three times and harassed me and threatened my personal livelihood, career and bills.”
Legislative rules say investigations into harassment complaints will be handled by independent investigators and “must be completed within 84 days from the date the complaint is made.”
Last week, 609 days after Hernandez filed his complaint, Melissa Healy, a Stoel Rives lawyer hired by the equity office, finally produced her investigative report into Hernandez’s complaint. She shared a draft with him and Kotek.
Healy wrote that the glacial pace of her work had nothing to do with Kotek’s campaign for governor, instead blaming the difficulty of connecting with witnesses and “work-flow issues.” She interviewed just five witnesses.
Healy’s draft, first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, anticipated criticism.
“Neither the investigation, nor the timing or delivery of this report, has been in any way influenced by the elections cycle,” she wrote.
Healy’s draft finds that Kotek probably did what Hernandez claimed but that her conduct did not violate legislative rules.
“The evidence more closely supports Hernandez’s version of the events,” Healy wrote. “That said, even assuming Hernandez’s recollection is correct, the evidence does not suggest that the conversation was anything more than what Kotek characterized as a ‘contentious political conversation on a tough day in my role as Speaker.’”
Hernandez’s story is complicated. The East Portland native first won election in 2016 and showed early promise. In May 2019, Kotek desperately needed votes to cut public employee benefits so she could in turn win support for the billion-dollar Student Success Act. But Hernandez rebuffed what he and Kotek both told Healy were Kotek’s strong arguments that he needed to get on board.
Then, in March 2020, an ex-girlfriend, Andrea Valderrama, sought a restraining order against Hernandez. After two other women also complained, Kotek called on him to resign. Over the course of the next year, investigators for the Legislative Equity Office built a case against him based on complaints he’d harassed women in the Capitol.
In January 2021, as pressure mounted on Hernandez, he filed his complaint against Kotek, citing her conduct around the 2019 vote to cut public employee benefits. He alleged she had threatened to kill his priority bills and end his career over the vote, offering contemporaneous text messages and the names of witnesses.
Kotek says the move was simply a ploy to deflect attention from his own actions.
The following month, in February 2021, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Conduct recommended that Hernandez be expelled from the House. He resigned before the issue came to a vote on the House floor. (Valderrama, then chair of the David Douglas School Board and a former aide to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, won the appointment to replace him.)
Meanwhile, Hernandez’s complaint against Kotek moved slowly. Records show the investigation didn’t start until he formally signed the complaint in June 2021.
A long trail of email exchanges between him and Stoel Rives lawyers show that Hernandez provided information about other witnesses and repeatedly pushed for a resolution.
Nearly a year ago, for instance, Healy told Hernandez she was almost finished with her work.
“I am hoping to wrap things up in the next month or so,” Healy wrote to Hernandez on Oct. 13, 2021, “but that may vary based on scheduling and a couple other factors.”
On April 27, 2022, six months later, Healy again promised progress. “I completed the fact-finding the week before last (it was delayed due to witness availability) and am now working on the report, which will be released as soon as possible,” she wrote to Hernandez.
Emails WW obtained suggest Healy’s report might have continued to languish, except Hernandez notified her and others last month of a personal crisis.
“Three weeks ago, I attempted suicide,” Hernandez wrote in a Sept. 19 email to Healy, as well as another Stoel Rives lawyer, a legislative staffer, and a lawmaker. (Hernandez later gave the email to WW.)
“My overall traumatizing and toxic experience in the legislature did lead to the deterioration of my mental and physical health.” (A friend of Hernandez’s confirms the suicide attempt.)
Hernandez went on to say that the “extremely delayed process” of his complaint against Kotek had been weighing on him.
“I have been waiting for updates,” Hernandez wrote. “I’ve texted, called, emailed.…I’m still in waiting.”
Seven days later, Healy issued her draft report. She did not respond to questions, including whether Hernandez’s email prompted the release.
One of the people Hernandez copied on his message of distress was state Rep. Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles), a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Conduct.
The letter prompted Bonham to write a Sept. 20 letter to House Speaker Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) expressing concerns Bonham says he first heard back in April “that the process was being manipulated because of the current gubernatorial primary.”
“The suspicions of the former members who participated in this investigation is that this is all about politics—and the delay is due to a desire to protect Tina Kotek in the upcoming gubernatorial election,” wrote Bonham, who has endorsed Kotek’s GOP opponent, Christine Drazan.
“It is clear to me this process is broken,” Bonham continued. “Those with power and authority will always find a way to avoid the very scrutiny they wish to impose upon others.”
Through a spokesman, Speaker Rayfield says he had no control over the timing of the investigation and is disappointed it took so long.
Kotek flatly rejects the assertion that she had anything to do with slowing the investigation of Hernandez’s complaint.
“Tina provided quick responses when the investigator reached out,” says Kotek spokeswoman Katie Wertheimer. “She knew that the report would confirm that these were baseless accusations, and was frustrated by the delays. She has no knowledge about what caused the delays.”
In a response Kotek sent to the Conduct Committee, she wrote that she felt vindicated and called Hernandez’s allegations a “blatant attempt to distract people from his own harmful behavior.”
Hernandez could not be reached for comment on Kotek’s assertion.