A sexual harassment complaint between two legislators has upended the Oregon House of Representatives.
The cases raises questions about how to balance protections for the accuser with the rights of the accused – and whether that balance changes when their work is being done virtually.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, this week removed Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, as chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee while the complaint against him is investigated. But Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, who filed the complaint, said more should be done
Though Witt remains on the Agriculture committee, Kotek told lawmakers that “in an abundance of caution for the parties involved,” he will not attend or participate in its meetings. In compliance with coronavirus health protocols, all legislative committees are operating via Microsoft Teams videoconferencing instead of in-person.
The House also has canceled floor sessions until at least Monday. Three cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among legislators or staff in the Oregon Capitol.
Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, is a vice chair of the Agriculture committee. She filed the conduct complaint last week under the Legislature’s Rule 27 on harassment and a respectful workplace. She cited an incident alleged to have occurred April 12.
Such a complaint requires the signer to attest under penalty of perjury. However, Breese-Iverson was not publicly identified until Tuesday, when she released a letter she sent to Kotek.
Witt said he disagrees with the allegations and expects to be exonerated.
Breese-Iverson serves on all three committees that Witt is on: Business and Labor, Water, and Agriculture and Natural Resources. She wrote to Kotek this week, arguing that Witt should be removed temporarily from all committees on which they jointly serve. “A hostile work environment is made worse in a virtual world,” she said.
“The events of last Monday demonstrated a clear abuse of power and sexual harassment from one elected official with seniority and power over another,” Breese-Iverson wrote. “The quid-pro-quo he texted me is an inexcusable abuse of his power.”
Kotek wrote back she has now asked the acting legislative equity officer to help ensure that the no-contact order is followed during committee meetings.
Outside investigator Sarah Ryan, who was assigned the case, told the House Conduct Committee last Friday that she expected to complete her draft investigatory report by month’s end.
As is normal in these cases, the Conduct Committee was meeting only to discuss whether interim safety measures were necessary to protect the complainant and the integrity of the investigation.
The committee’s two Republicans and two Democrats voted unanimously to issue a no-contact order between the parties. Instead of calling for Witt’s removal as committee chair, they praised him for willingly offering to do so.
Witt told the committee: “I am confident that as the investigator pointed out, this will be a short investigation – likely. I believe and hope that will the case. And I also believe 101 percent that it will be found that there was no ill intent on my part whatsoever but rather an attempt to further the committee interests.”
Breese-Iverson did not participate in the meeting and was not identified by name. She released her letter to Kotek in hopes of ensuring a more fair, transparent process.
Investigator Ryan said Breese-Iverson faced no danger of physical harm from Witt. “It’s rather the emotional impact,” Ryan said.
The Conduct Committee struggled with what safety meant in those terms. Co-chair Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said any committee actions must address immediate safety concerns, be narrowly tailored and not be punitive. Recommending Witt’s removal as committee chair struck Fahey as punitive and unnecessary, especially when committees are meeting virtually.
“This is a challenging line to walk. I look at what is actually needed to address immediate safety concerns, not just discomfort. And this line of not interfering with someone’s ability to do their core legislative work,” she said.
Such reasoning led to Breese-Iverson’s letter to Kotek, saying a true no-contact order would require Witt’s removal from their joint committees.
Along with Fahey, the House Conduct Committee includes Co-Chair Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, who led Friday’s meeting; Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem; and Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland.
Kotek has appointed Rep. Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale, to chair Agriculture and Natural Resources, whose next meeting is scheduled for April 27. Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, takes Hudson’s previous position as a vice chair.
Nate Monson began as acting legislative equity officer last week, succeeding Jackie Sandmeyer. Monson was director for LGBTQ equality at the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change and before that was executive director of Iowa Safe Schools. He earned a history degree at Clarke University.