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After Bombshell Complaint, Capitol Officials Push Back

<p>Speaker of the House Tina Kotek speaks to the public in the rotunda of the capitol building in Salem on Thursday, May 14, 2015.</p>

Alan Sylvestre

Speaker of the House Tina Kotek speaks to the public in the rotunda of the capitol building in Salem on Thursday, May 14, 2015.

One day after a complaint by Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian accused state legislative leaders of underplaying reports of sexual harassment, some Capitol officials are firing back.

The state's top legislative counsel and an attorney who investigated the complaints of harassment have categorically denied parts of Avakian's complaint — including allegations they tamped down reports of harassment and failed to alert victims of their rights.

"We would be on the phone for hours if I was to go through every sentence (that was wrong)," said Dexter Johnson, the Legislature's top attorney, who features prominently in the document.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, confirmed Thursday she'd been cautioned not to speak about reports that she'd been inappropriately touched by former Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, in an impromptu conference call with reporters, reaffirmed a pledge to improve the environment at the Capitol and work with Avakian, while also calling his motives into question.

"I think you have to ask the commissioner what the goal is of his complaint," Kotek said. "I think we're still trying to understand that."

The responses showed a state Capitol in turmoil after an unexpected bombshell dropped by Avakian. In a civil rights complaint filed Wednesday with his own agency, the Bureau of Labor and Industries, the commissioner accused legislative leaders of permitting "a generally hostile environment based on sex." Specifically named in the complaint were senior officials in Avakian's own Democratic Party: Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney.

Many allegations have to do with how leaders responded to repeated, long-term complaints about Kruse. But Avakian also folded in other instances of reported misbehavior, painting a picture of a Legislature unable to appropriately respond to sexual harassment.

Johnson, the legislative attorney, adamantly denied Avakian's claims that he'd repeatedly told harassment victims not to discuss their complaints with others. Most dramatic was a statement Avakian claims the Office of Legislative Counsel made to an intern: that her career "would be over" if her allegations against Kruse went public.

"I never told anyone their career would be over. I have never said anything like that," Johnson said. "It would be unthinkable."

After Gelser reported that she was the target of unwanted touching from Kruse, Johnson said he did explain that personnel rules called for confidentiality while an investigation was ongoing.

That's not how Gelser interpreted his words, she said Thursday.

"It felt like an employer telling me to be quiet about this," Gelser said. "I don't know if that's what was intended, but that's the outcome of how it felt."

Meanwhile, a Lake Oswego attorney who investigated allegations against Kruse earlier this year also took issue with Avakian's characterization of her work.

The complaint alleges Dian Rubanoff told two student interns that they had no standing to file suit against the Legislature after being harassed by Kruse. Avakian notes a 2013 law would have explicitly given legislative interns such standing.

Rubanoff denies ever saying that.

"I categorically deny that I told either of the law students that there was no definition of their legal status, or that there was no way for them to file suit," she wrote in an email to OPB. "I had no discussion with either of them, at any time during the investigation, regarding whether they had a right to file a lawsuit. In my role as an investigator, I do not give legal advice to witnesses."

The allegations that Rubanoff failed to alert victims of harassment of their rights could carry additional heft because of an announcement made Wednesday before Avakian filed his complaint. Rubanoff has been tapped as an external point of contact for victims of harassment or other unwelcome activity within the Capitol if they don't feel comfortable reporting that activity in-house.

In a conversation with reporters, Kotek offered her most detailed reaction yet to Avakian's complaint. She was largely diplomatic, emphasizing her commitment to improving policies in the Legislature, and preventing harassment before it occurs.

"I have taken every complaint that has come to me very seriously," she said. "This is a personal issue for me, not a political one. I want to be sure people feel safe in the Capitol."

Kotek said she first learned Avakian would file the complaint Tuesday night, and said she was surprised, since the Legislature has been working with BOLI on crafting new policy. The speaker said she needed more information to pass judgment on many of Avakian's allegations. But like others, she did dispute aspects of the complaint.

"The biggest surprise for me and also the one that I take most issue with is the first fact that alleged that I have promoted a hostile environment," she said. "I categorically deny that."

Kotek said she first heard of allegations against Kruse in October 2017, just as complaints against him were becoming public. And she stressed that Kruse was a senator, who she had no power over as head of the state's House of Representatives.

After the high-profile controversy forced Kruse to resign earlier this year, legislative leaders asked the state's Oregon Law Commission to review state policies and find ways to curb harassment. But Avakian's complaint highlights how cases of sexual harassment in the state Capitol present a unique set of challenges.

Unlike private businesses, which have a chief executive with broad powers, lawmakers are often hamstrung in disciplining a fellow lawmaker, whose boss is technically the public. Underlying everything within the walls of the statehouse is a thorny web of power dynamics, political alliances and motivations.

The personnel rule that lawmakers followed in the investigation into Kruse had never been followed before, and led to some confusing scenarios. At one point, the state's legal counsel was going to represent both Gelser and Kruse, according to Gelser.

"At the end of the day, (Dexter Johnson) has a responsibility to look after the interest of the Legislature, so can he really advise someone to sue his primary client?" Gelser asked, adding "it's not a question of his character" but a rather cumbersome process that creates conflicting motivations.

Johnson said that isn't how he sees his role.

"We don't represent accused or allegations of someone making misconduct, all we do is assist with the rules ... and facilitate any process involved ensuring there is an investigation done to determine facts," he said, adding later, "Ultimately, I have no control over legislators. They are the masters of their own destiny. I just want to make sure they make an informed decision."

People named in Avakian's complaint weren't the only ones issuing strong statements in response. On Wednesday evening, GOP gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler, a state representative from Bend, called on Courtney and Kotek to abandon their leadership positions. He also called for the resignation of Johnson and legislative human resources head Lore Christopher.

"For too long casual attitudes and unprofessional behavior has been accepted and tolerated in the Capitol," Buehler said in a statement posted to Twitter, also writing: "Those in positions of power who are aware of misconduct and fail to take it seriously forfeit their right and credibility to lead."

Kotek dismissed the statement Thursday.

"It's really unfortunate that Rep. Buehler wants to play politics," she said. "I have no intention of stepping down."

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake