Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian is demanding a judge hold the state's top legislative officials in contempt for not responding to his subpoenas in a sexual harassment investigation.
Now members of the Oregon Legislature—including House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney—will have to convince a judge not to hold them in contempt in a Bureau of Labor & Industry investigation into whether they let a sexually hostile environment prevail in the state Capitol.
Avakian is a Democrat. So are Kotek and Courtney. The motion is the latest move in an intra-party war, in an election year, over whether women were protected from a Republican senator.
In August, Avakian accused the leaders of Oregon's legislature of ignoring sexual harassment complaints against Sen. Jeff Kruse, who was later forced to resign over the allegations. Avakian claimed state leaders blocked his attempts to help women who complained about harassment at the capitol and accused them of letting Kruse have student interns after two legislators had claimed he harassed them.
As part of his agency's investigation, Avakian subpoenaed House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, among others. Legislative leaders objected to the subpoenas, claiming that ensuring a workplace free from sexual harassment wasn't Avakian's responsibility. They also accused Avakian of mounting his investigation in violation of the state Constitution.
The legislators claimed Avakian's investigation threatened to reveal the identity of the women who accused Kruse of harassment, so Avakian obtained a protective order to protect their privacy. But the legislators still wouldn't comply with his subpoenas, Avakian claims.
On Wednesday, Avakian filed a motion in Multnomah County Circuit Court demanding that Kruse, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Administration Committee prove they shouldn't be held in contempt of court. In the motion, Avakian says Oregon law gives BOLI power "to take all steps necessary to eliminate and prevent unlawful practices" like discrimination and harassment, even in the state capitol, which counts under state law as "a place of public accommodation."
Avakian demanded sanctions of $1,000 per day since Aug. 20.
"State respondents are not above the law and their conduct is not beyond all scrutiny," Avakian said in the motion.
Kotek's office did not respond to phone calls requesting comment. Courtney's office directed WW to attorney Ed Harndon with Barran Liebman, who was hired by the legislative counsel committee to handle this issue.
Judge Stephen Bushong set a hearing for Nov. 16 to address Avakian's request.
UPDATE, 5:30 pm:
Ed Harnden, an attorney with Barran Liebman hired by the legislative counsel committee to handle Avakian's investigation, says officials aren't complying with the subpoena because the protective order—which is supposed to protect the whistleblowers—is only valid until the end of the investigation.
"They know quite well that that protective order is not going to protect those people long-term," Harnden said. "After the investigation, they will send out what they have found. This protective order doesn't get you protection, but most importantly it doesn't protect people who want to come forward to bring issues up it politicizes it. It publicizes it. It keeps people from coming forward."
Harden tells WW that today's legal filing was a political argument, not one aimed at finding a solution to sexual harassment at the state Capitol, or at encouraging future whistleblowers to come forward.
"What Brad needs to do is he needs to sit down and spend some time with the Oregon constitution," Harnden said. "Brad Avakian is not responsible for coming into the legislature and telling legislators what not to do."