Investigation: Lawmakers Lax on Stopping Sexual Harassment

A state investigation released Thursday finds Oregon lawmakers didn't do enough to stop sexual harassment in the Capitol.

Posted: Jan 3, 2019 3:09 PM

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A state investigation released Thursday finds Oregon lawmakers didn't do enough to stop sexual harassment in the Capitol.

As a result, the five-month investigation by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, known as BOLI, concludes the state Capitol is a hostile workplace, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported .

In an interview with BOLI investigators, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis described feeling marginalized by how some of the state's most powerful Democrats and key legislative leaders reacted after she accused then Sen. Jeff Kruse of touching her breast and placing his hand on her thigh under a dais.

Gelser told BOLI that Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, suggested she was "grandstanding" by speaking out against Kruse. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, reportedly told Gelser it was hard to move forward with her complaint because people in the Capitol consider Gelser unlikable and that Gelser had made the sexual harassment complaint all about her. Gelser told state investigators that Senate President Peter Courtney yelled at her in a café when the two were discussing harassment.

Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, allegedly told Gelser she needed to "learn how to deal" with working with Kruse.

House Speaker Tina Kotek disagreed with the report's characterization of her conversation with Gelser. Kotek said she has always been personally supportive of Gelser, who she said showed "tremendous courage" in coming forward to report Kruse's behavior.

"The fact that she came forward is going to make the capitol a better place to work and we're going to make improvements," Kotek said.

The report echoes Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian's initial complaint that top lawmakers haven't done enough to curb harassment they knew or should have known was occurring. As the complainant in the case, Avakian didn't participate in the investigation.

Typically, findings like those in the new report would open the Legislature up to penalties under BOLI's regulatory process, which has seen record-setting settlements during Avakian's decade-long tenure atop the bureau. But Avakian, a Democrat like those he has accused of letting harassment fester, is about to leave office. On Monday, Labor Commissioner-elect Val Hoyle will take control of the department and will likely dictate whether the bureau seeks consequences for the Legislature. She has not said how she plans to handle the matter.

At the heart of the BOLI investigation is misconduct by former Republican state Sen. Jeff Kruse, who has been found to have subjected interns, lobbyists, fellow lawmakers and legislative staff to inappropriate comments and unwelcome touching over a course of years.

Courtney and Kotek earlier denied Avakian's accusations and said his investigation would have a chilling effect on others to come forward when they face harassment.

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