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Sexual Harassment Policies Struggle To Protect Oregon Legislature's Staff

<p>Oregon Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg</p>

Oregon Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg

The head of human resources for the Oregon State Legislature told members of a task force Tuesday that it can be hard to protect people from sexual misconduct in the statehouse.

“(It’s) difficult to sit on the other side of the table and listen to an employee who has a negative interaction with a member (of the Legislature) that I would feel is harassing behavior and know we’re very limited in what we can do to stop that behavior. That's hard,” Lore Christopher told the panel charged with reviewing sexual harassment policies at the Capitol.

After a high-profile sexual misconduct case where Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg resigned amid immense pressure, legislative leaders asked the state’s Oregon Law Commission to review state policies and laws to ensure the Capitol is a harassment-free workplace.

An investigation into Kruse revealed a pattern of harassing women. His fellow state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, first raised the issues but she wasn’t alone; other lawmakers, a lobbyist and interns assigned to Kruse’s office also complained about harassment.

Because it involved an elected member, the Legislature quickly realized there were few tools to discipline a member other than a special conduct committee hearing and a vote of the chamber.

Subsequently, a special task force was created and work is underway to come up with recommendations for the rules governing harassment in the Salem statehouse — where politics and power dynamics are in constant play between lobbyists, the public and elected officials.

Christopher said part of the challenge is that filing a formal complaint triggers an investigation, which is ultimately a public process. That means the person making the complaint can no longer remain anonymous.

Shortly after Christopher’s comments, another task force member pointed out another issue: victims of sexual abuse are often hesitant to visit human resources out of fear of retaliation.

“They see human resources as protecting the other side, the harassers, the management, whatever … a lot of stuff goes unreported because of that,” said Scott Hunt, who suggested an ombudsman might be a solution.

The conversation also veered into politics and whether legislative leaders should be alerted when there is a complaint filed. That immediately raised issues about caucus leaders who might have a political incentive in protecting their member from outside scrutiny or an interest in keeping them in their position so dirt could be used against them later in a campaign.

Leaders have asked the commission to finish its work in time to introduce legislation and new policies during the 2019 legislative session.

The commission will meet next month at the state Capitol and is seeking input from the public.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Lauren Dake is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.