capital chatter logo

As a workplace, the Oregon Capitol stinks.

The norms of normal workplace behavior often don’t apply. Why? Politics.

That was obvious even before Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, was forced to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment, not to mention breaking state law by smoking in his Capitol office.

It remained obvious when Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, resigned last year rather than face expulsion when the House Conduct Committee found he violated legislative rules against sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

And it was obvious this week when that same committee, although with some different membership, received an investigator’s report that absolved Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek of creating a hostile work environment and retaliating against Hernandez during her tenure as House speaker.

“I sought to separate conduct that was ‘politics as usual’ from conduct that would more likely than not create a hostile work environment for a legislator,” wrote attorney Melissa Healy of the Stoel Rives law firm. (The “for a legislator” italics were hers.)

The committee ran out of time on Wednesday and did not act on the report. Kotek did not attend the meeting, which was held virtually.

Here, let’s pause for a bit of background: Way back in 2018, the state Bureau of Labor and Industries under then-Commissioner Brad Avakian issued a political, incomplete but damming report that found legislative leaders allowed a culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol. When a new, friendlier-to-legislative-leadership commissioner took office in 2019 – Val Hoyle, now running in Oregon’s 4th Congressional District – Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney signed a BOLI conciliation agreement.

In part, they committed the Legislature to:

• Pay $1.3 million in compensation.

• “Continue efforts from legislative leadership to improve the Capitol culture.”

• Establish an equity officer overseen by a new bipartisan Joint Conduct Committee.

• “The offices of Legislative Counsel and Legislative Administration will have no role in handling investigations related to discrimination and sexual harassment.”

• Implement training, including “requiring respectful workplace training for staff, contractors, and lobbyists.”

• Create avenues for reporting harassment, investigating and taking remedial measures.

Three years later, it’s a mess. Controversy surrounds the Legislative Equity Office. The position remains unfilled a year after acting officer Nate Monson abruptly resigned, and he’s suing the Legislature. When I asked Kotek last year about his departure, she simply said he wasn’t the right fit. It turns out his employment credentials weren’t what they seemed.

Meanwhile, outside lawyers are handling workplace complaints. But as I read their reports and listen to their reports, they often strike me as weak, inconsistent and certainly not expeditious.

Some participants subsequently say they no longer trust the process. Complainants against Hernandez were given anonymity, but that same confidentiality was not awarded witnesses for his complaint against Kotek. Investigations have drawn out far longer than the 84 days allotted under legislative rule. The investigation in Hernandez’ case took roughly 600 days.

As I’ve noted previously, Kotek played hardball to get her way in the Legislature. So did the other two main candidates for governor – former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan and former Ways & Means co-chair Betsy Johnson, the one-time Democrat now running independently.

Healy’s conclusions are in her report are unsurprising. The real issue here is the failure of the Legislature and its leadership to live up to their professed workplace reforms: vastly overpromising and completely underdelivering.

Kotek, Courtney and colleagues may have promised the impossible. Reforming the Capitol, establishing a culture of mutual respect and undoing the power differential would have meant relinquishing some of their own power.

Because politics is built on power, which makes the Capitol such a difficult workplace to police in a meaningful way.

Hernandez contended that Kotek threatened to derail his personal legislation and destroy his political career if he didn’t vote in favor of a 2019 bill that reduced PERS benefits. He held fast. Kotek ultimately held up the floor vote while she met privately with a couple of recalcitrant Democrats to ensure Senate Bill 1049’s passage.

“This kind of conversation could hypothetically be inappropriate in another workplace, but this is the Legislature and it’s not an ordinary workplace,” Healy told the committee of Kotek’s heated talk with Hernandez.

Then in 2020, Kotek called for Hernandez’ resignation in response to the sexual harassment allegations.

During his lengthy, meandering testimony on Wednesday, Hernandez responded, “The investigator with this report is attempting to normalize as part of the legislative workplace culture that leadership is allowed to use bullying, threats, intimidation, yelling, outbursts and rage in order to get you to conform to her rule because the rules that they wrote for themselves give them that power.”

Indeed, that is politics. Play the game or lose your plum committee assignments and see your desired legislation scuttled.

Testifying on Hernandez’ behalf, former Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, recounted that his opposition to PERS legislation in 2013 caused Kotek to kill three of his bills. But he said it wasn’t done brutally.

Clem spoke to the toll on Hernandez’ mental health. He said it was inexcusable that the legislative workplace conduct rule does not cover bullying or toxic treatment of lawmakers.

“The notion that the Legislature is not a ‘regular workplace’ for legislators is not OK,” he told committee members. “They are humans, too. You are humans, too. You deserve the protections.”

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.comFacebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

Tags

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.