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Oregon Labor Commissioner Asks To Hold Lawmakers In Contempt Of Court

<p>Democratic Secretary of State candidate Brad Avakian</p>

Bradley W. Parks

Democratic Secretary of State candidate Brad Avakian

Oregon’s labor commissioner is asking a judge to hold leading state lawmakers in contempt of court, after they refused to comply with subpoenas issued in an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment at the Capitol.

In a motion filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Wednesday, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian requested that a judge fine 12 entities — including the state’s Legislative Assembly as a whole, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney — $1,000 for every day they’ve neglected to respond to the subpoenas.

What’s more, Avakian suggests in the filing that he has “reason to believe that Respondents have committed unlawful practices and the subpoenas were necessary to protect the items from imminent destruction.”

The move appears to be unprecedented. 

"This is the first time we have had to seek a contempt ruling" based on subpoenas, said Christine Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Labor and Industries. "Our investigation cannot move forward without the requested interviews and documents." 

An attorney representing the assembly in the matter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The filing is the latest chapter in an odd saga that began Aug. 1, when Avakian, a Democrat, lodged a formal complaint against the Legislature and its top Democratic officials.

Avakian alleged that those leaders had allowed a hostile work environment in the Capitol. The complaint was largely based on the conduct of former state Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, who was found in an investigation earlier this year to have harassed fellow lawmakers, staffers and interns.

In his complaint, Avakian suggested Courtney and Kotek had allowed Kruse’s conduct to persist even after they learned about it, an allegation the lawmakers adamantly deny. Avakian also accused the Legislature’s top attorney and human resources director of misleading harassment victims about their rights.

Once the complaint was lodged, records show Avakian’s bureau issued more than 10 subpoenas, requesting a wide range of documents associated with the investigation into Kruse’s conduct and other matters.

Legislators have consistently pushed back against the investigation. On Aug. 24, an attorney for most of the parties Avakian subpoenaed formally objected, saying the Legislature believes “all or part” of the subpoenas are an invasion of privacy, seek “highly confidential” information about individuals who reported harassment and are overly broad.

Days later, in a formal response to Avakian’s complaint, legislative leaders argued Avakian has no power to police the legislative assembly under Oregon’s Constitution.

The Bureau of Labor and Industries attempted to respond to some of those issues. For instance, in response to concerns about the privacy of harassment victims, the bureau obtained a protective order from one of its own administrative law judges, ensuring that details of their identities would be kept confidential.

The motion Avakian filed earlier this week depicts a back and forth between BOLI and Edwin Harnden, the attorney representing the Legislature. BOLI eventually broadened its protective order to address Harnden’s concerns about privacy, the motion says, but legislative leaders still would not comply with the subpoenas.

A hearing on Avakian's motion has been scheduled for Nov. 19. 

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.