A Searing Investigation of Workplace Culture in the Legislature Spotlights the Actions of Oregon’s Most Powerful Lawmaker: Peter Courtney

Brad Avakian's Jan. 3 report produced new, damning information about a culture of cover-ups and indifference.

Peter Courtney has presided over the Senate since 2003, longer than any Senate president in Oregon history. (James Rexroad)

The new year started poorly for a lot of powerful people in Salem.

On Jan. 3, Brad Avakian, then commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, laid bare a culture of sexual harassment in the Oregon Legislature.

Avakian's investigators found numerous examples of harassment extending back years—including the widely publicized actions of former Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg) that led to Kruse's 2018 resignation. The report also produced new, damning information about a culture of cover-ups and indifference.

Nobody comes in for more criticism in Avakian's report than the most powerful man in the Capitol, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem).

Courtney, whose devotion to the institution of the Legislature is legendary, is criticized in the report for being more concerned about Kruse's regular violations of the Capitol's smoking ban than he was about repeated allegations of harassment against Kruse.

That fits a pattern of misplaced priorities, according to Avakian's report.

Avakian's agency began probing dysfunction at the Legislature in late 2017, when female staffers and former interns approached him.

The BOLI report draws on previously unreleased notes and records of internal legislative investigations and interviews with lawmakers as well as Capitol staffers and interns. It references incidents that took place as long ago as 2011.

Although Courtney wields enormous clout over the whole building, the BOLI report focuses significant attention on how he handled his own staff.

For example, when Courtney's office manager, a woman, acknowledged in July 2015 that she was dating a member of the Oregon House—a relationship Avakian's report says was permitted under legislative rules—the woman lost her position.

"The record includes credible testimony by a former female employee, who stated that Senate President Courtney caused her employment to end because she was dating a member of the Legislature, while the record lacks evidence that Senate President Courtney attempted comparably forceful actions to prevent harassment by Senator Kruse," the report says.

Records obtained independently by WW shed additional light on the situation.

A July 24, 2015, separation agreement signed by Courtney's former office manager makes clear she was fired: She was paid generously to go home and keep her mouth shut. That's very different from Courtney's response to men, including Kruse, accused of harassment.

"It's a clear double standard, based on what's in the report," says Beth Creighton, a Portland lawyer who often handles workplace cases.

Courtney first won election to the Legislature in 1980 and has presided over the Senate since the 2003 session, a tenure unparalleled in Oregon history.

At age 75, Courtney has held office longer than some lawmakers have been alive and easily batted aside a challenge to his authority last month. He is the closest thing Salem has to a living monument—the capital city already named a bridge after him.

He alone decides who sits on which Senate committees, which bills come to the floor, and whether bills that pass the House will reach the governor's desk. He's powerful enough to stop any legislation or exile any senator to the legislative equivalent of Siberia.

Yet Avakian's report details the frustration of Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), the most vocal of Kruse's accusers, with Courtney's failure to use his power to take decisive action to support her and other victims, despite a litany of complaints going back years.

Avakian declined to discuss the report with WW.

Courtney disagrees with how he's characterized in the report. "When I learned of allegations against Sen. Kruse, I took immediate action," he tells WW in an email. "I did everything within my authority and some things that were beyond my authority. I removed him from his committees. I convinced him to stay away from the Capitol. I had his Capitol access badge turned off. I secured his resignation. The Senate president can't remove a senator from office. Only the voters and full Senate can do that."

Oregon State Capitol (Edmund Garman / Flickr)

In 2015, Courtney's female office manager was dating a member of the Oregon House, whom other members have identified as state Rep. Paul Evans (D-Monmouth). The woman did not interact professionally with Evans, and no rules in either chamber prohibited their dating.

But the woman, who was interviewed as part of BOLI's investigation, told Avakian's investigator Courtney disapproved of the relationship and she was told she would have to "either resign or be fired or be demoted."

Evans did not return a call seeking comment. Neither did the woman, who WW is not naming because she's not accused of breaking any laws or ethics rules.

Courtney claims the woman quit. "Her employment ended because she voluntarily resigned," Courtney writes in an email.

Documents obtained by WW through a public records request, however, show the woman signed a letter July 24, 2015, submitting her "resignation" in exchange for five months' pay—about $25,000—and six months' benefits. She also had to agree "irrevocably and unconditionally not to sue the state of Oregon and the [Senate President's Office]."

Creighton, the employment lawyer, notes employees don't typically get paid severance when they resign.

A couple of months before Courtney's office manager was terminated, a female legislative staffer had complained in May 2015 that Courtney's spokesman, Robin Maxey, who is male, "offered to buy her a beer at an event, and had stood so close as to be touching the side of his body with hers; that she declined his offer of a beer and moved across the bar, but Mr. Maxey followed her and repeated the same conduct."

Maxey denied the allegations, although he acknowledged later sending the woman an unwelcome Facebook message.

Courtney says he took the matter seriously. He rejects the notion he treated male and female employees differently.

"When I learned a [complaint] had been made about my communications director, I acted immediately," Courtney says. "I made it clear to him that should anything like this occur in the future, I would fire him."

Creighton, the employment lawyer, says the fact that Courtney's office manager lost her job despite apparently doing nothing wrong, while a male employee remained in place after harassment allegations, reflects a long-held worldview.

"Sexual harassment is so ingrained in Courtney's generation, they don't even see it's a problem," Creighton says.

Inside Oregon’s Capitol (Edmund Garman / Flickr)

There are villains galore in Avakian's 52-page report. There is Kruse, whose Neanderthal behavior sunk him. There are state Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Salem), who told Kruse's victims to tough it out; Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D-Portland), who told House leaders not to comment publicly—Democrats liked the way Kruse voted on some issues; and state Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis), whose alleged serial harassment House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) struggled to contain. Kotek also failed to speak up on Gelser's behalf, telling Gelser that people found her insufficiently "likable." (Kotek has since apologized.)

The report landed in Salem like a stink bomb, just a couple of weeks before lawmakers convene for the 2019 session. Given Democrats' supermajorities in both chambers, the session holds the potential to be the most consequential in decades—if lawmakers can stay on speaking terms.

Kotek and Courtney, who defied Avakian's subpoenas until forced to comply by a Multnomah County circuit judge, pushed back hard on Avakian's report. "My initial reaction is disappointment and frustration," Kotek said in a statement when it was released. "I disagree with many of the assertions in the commissioner's report," Courtney added.

That struck even some Democrats as misguided.

"There's a very real problem in Salem," says Oregon Democratic Party Chairwoman Jeanne Atkins after reading the report. "I hope our legislative leaders will resist the urge to focus on where they think the report is unfair or inaccurate. If we look at the big picture, I think this analysis by Commissioner Avakian's BOLI team could be very helpful."

It now falls to Avakian's successor, Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who was sworn in Jan. 7, to determine the appropriate penalty or remedy for the violations Avakian's report found.

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