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Oregon Speaker Says Harassment Report 'Disturbing' But Incomplete

<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.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek conceded on Friday that the labor department's investigation into sexual harassment at the state Legislature offers a troubling picture, but she called into question the report’s completeness.

“I do think when you see everything listed together, it’s a disturbing picture of things,” Kotek told OPB. “But I also know that we’ve dealt with each one of the cases individually through our existing process.”

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) issued the report on Thursday concluding legislative leaders knew about substantial sexual harassment happening in the state Capitol and didn’t do enough to stop the behavior.

Kotek questioned the thoroughness of the investigation.

“I was expecting something that was a little bit more comprehensive. I don’t think it was a complete investigation at the end of the day," she said. "I mean the labor commissioner didn’t even interview me, so I’m not sure it actually covered everything he wanted to cover in terms of providing a balanced perspective on all the viewpoints.”

One of the noteworthy revelations in the report was based on accounts from Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, the first person to come forward saying she had been harassed by then-Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg. Gelser told BOLI investigators that she felt marginalized by how top legislative leaders reacted to her story.

According to the BOLI report, Gelser said Kotek told her it was hard to move forward with her complaint because people in the Capitol consider Gelser unlikable and that Gelser had made the sexual harassment complaint all about her.

“She’s like, ‘People don’t like you, and I was talking to a Republican today and they’re, like, you know, this would be a problem but she’s just not very likeable,’” Gelser told investigators. “And she says, ‘So, you know, the way this has unfolded you’ve made it all about yourself.’”

In a Facebook post, Kotek expressed regret with the way she communicated her concerns with Gelser. Kotek said she was trying to avoid making the Kruse situation overly partisan.

“As I was discussing our shared goal of seeing Senator Kruse resign, I shared information about what others were saying,” Kotek wrote. “In no way did I intend to validate those views. I deeply regret that I hurt Senator Gelser or made her feel less supported.”

Kotek continued: “As a woman leader who has been the recipient of gendered comments, I personally know how damaging that behavior can be. It’s completely unacceptable, and I will keep fighting to make our workplace safe and fair for everyone.”

Kotek said her instinct was to try to let the process play itself out without making the situation overly partisan. It was a stressful time, she said, and everyone’s goal was that Kruse leave the statehouse. Her intent was to give Gelser helpful advice, and not in any way appear unsupportive, she said.

Kotek called on Kruse to resign in February 2018, not long before he ultimately did.

On Monday, Labor Commissioner-elect Val Hoyle will take control of BOLI, and so will likely dictate whether the bureau seeks consequences for the Legislature. She has not said how she plans to handle the matter, but on Thursday issued a statement saying she was “prepared to do what we need to do to build trust, both with victims and employers … . We’re going deal with all of these things in a fair and transparent manner.”

Kotek said the Legislature is moving forward with recommendations from the Oregon Law Commission on how to combat harassment. Kotek said she’s unsure if the report issued by BOLI would stand up in any kind of court proceedings.

“There’s a lot of hearsay. The documents are unclear," she said. "It’s a very difficult determination to really even understand as you read through it what it’s actually saying."

Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report 

Copyright 2019 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.