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Oregon Capitol Harassment Problem 'Starts And Stops With Us,' House Speaker Tells Lawmakers

The ongoing debate about sexual harassment was front and center in Salem Monday when lawmakers convened for the legislative session that begins next week.

The state Legislature met for the first time since an unprecedented investigation this month found top lawmakers allowed a hostile workplace and permitted sexual harassment to fester.

Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who was sworn in for a historic fourth term as a presiding officer in the House, used her opening remarks to address the harassment controversy. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who oversees the chamber where most of the high-profile harassment cases took place, was also sworn in again but did not address workplace environment issues in his speech.

The problem of poor culture at the state Capitol, Kotek told her fellow lawmakers, “starts and stops with us.”

“If anyone is sitting there thinking they are not the problem, I would ask that you catch yourself,” the speaker said.

House lawmakers will also undergo sexual harassment training this week. Kotek said the goals of the training throughout the week will be to “heighten personal awareness about inclusion” and move forward toward making sure “equity can be a lived reality in our Capitol.”

In the Senate, legislators did raise concerns about changes to harassment policies.  One of the sticking points was around confidentiality when filing a harassment complaint. The rule lawmakers voted on Monday will allow for people who are involved in the complaint to speak about it without repercussions. But it continues to prevent those not involved, who might have heard of it, from discussing it. Lawmakers also voted to extend the statute of limitations from one year to four years.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, voiced concerns about how the rule is crafted, saying it would restrict people’s free speech and prevent people from having the ability to warn each other about harassment.

“If a staff member knew there was an investigation pursuant to an informal complaint and she learned another colleague had been invited to lunch by (the accused harasser), she would not be able to warn her or let her know there was a complaint or an investigation,” Gelser said before Monday’s vote to approve the rule.

On the Senate floor, Gelser told her colleagues it’s time to “make this transparent.”

“We have to take away the shame of talking about (harassment),” she said.

One of Courtney’s longtime top aides resigned on Sunday evening as a result of the investigation into the statehouse.

Robin Maxey, who worked for Courtney for 11 years, was identified in the civil rights complaint filed by former Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.

A woman who worked in the building for another Democratic senator said Maxey repeatedly ignored her requests to stop leaning into her at a bar after she declined his offer of a beer and then sent her what she considered sexually lewd song lyrics by text message without her consent. Maxey denied the allegations but said they have become “disruptive” as the session gets underway.

Newly-elected Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, was the only Democratic senator who didn’t vote to re-elect Courtney as president. Courtney was also mentioned in the complaint from Avakian. A woman said she was fired from her job in his office because he disapproved of her dating a member of the House. Courtney also denied these allegations.

“The person nominated stands credibly accused of abusing power by a woman who is afraid to come forward,” Fagan wrote in an explanation of her vote. “I have no ability to interview her, question witnesses, subpoena documents, or examine the nominee under oath. All I have is her testimony and my values, which follow this presumption — I believe credible accusations by those who have little to gain, against those who have much to lose.”

<p>Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, addresses fellow senators on the Senate floor Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, addresses fellow senators on the Senate floor Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

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.