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Oregon Lawmaker Faces Allegations Of Harassment From Multiple Women

State Rep. Diego Hernandez is pictured on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.
State Rep. Diego Hernandez is pictured on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Rep. Diego Hernandez must give notice before entering the Capitol, and has been directed not to contact complainants.

Seven people have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment involving Oregon state Rep. Diego Hernandez, including claims that he subjected them to unwelcome comments and physical contact, and created a hostile work environment. 

The allegations have yet to be investigated but led to prompt action in a hastily called meeting of the House Conduct Committee on Monday. As “interim safety measures” while the process plays out, the committee unanimously voted to order Hernandez not to contact the complainants and required that he give 24 hours notice before visiting the Capitol building. The building is currently closed to the public.

Hernandez, a Democrat who represents East Portland, had previously taken a leave of absence from the Legislature and was removed from legislative committees last week, according to House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office. Kotek called on Hernandez to resign in the wake of Monday's vote.

Reached for comment, Hernandez suggested he would be vindicated. 

"I have no idea what the concerns raised are or by whom," he wrote in a text message. "I do know that there has been an organized campaign against me recently to get me out of the office I was duly elected to and I was threatened this would happen if I didn't resign."

Few concrete details about the allegations were available at Monday’s hearing.

Jackie Sandmeyer, who fields reports of harassment as the Legislature’s equity officer, said two of the complainants had spoken to others in the building about incidents involving Hernandez. Those incidents were brought to Sandmeyer’s attention by people required to report such allegations under legislative rules, including at least one lawmaker. Under the Legislature’s new process for handling such “conduct reports,” they are now subject to a public investigation by an outside investigator.

Five other women subsequently contacted Sandmeyer under a separate, confidential reporting process with allegations about Hernandez. The allegations have yet to be vetted. 

“There are incidences of verbal sexual harassment as well as disclosures of sexual harassment that involved contact,” Sandmeyer said. “As well as instances that would constitute… a larger hostile environment related to professional settings within the building.”

Sandmeyer added: “Almost every single individual I spoke with had concerns either about re-occurrence of behavior or they had brought forward concerns about someone reaching out to them to sway their decision one way or another about participating in the investigation."

Sarah Ryan, an outside attorney who will investigate at least two of the complaints, said she had read over allegations from one person and spoken with another.

“I have reviewed materials that suggest the second subject was fearful of her physical safety at one point,” Ryan said. “The first subject is fearful of retaliation.”

Hernandez urged the public to wait for the facts to emerge. 

"Due process matters," Hernandez said. "I ask that people withhold judgment until the investigation is complete. I believe women's allegations need to be heard  and then investigated by a credible process/sources..." 

The allegations are the latest in a string of incidents in which Hernandez has been accused of bad behavior.

In early March, the lawmaker was the subject of a restraining order after a woman he lived with said he hurled objects at her while drunk and under the influence of narcotics.

Hernandez denied the allegations to Willamette Week, which first revealed them. The paper has since reported that the restraining order was dismissed at the request of the woman who obtained it.

Hernandez, who is up for reelection, subsequently took a “leave of absence,” which inspired Kotek to pull his committee assignments last week.

In 2017, an investigation by legislative lawyers found no evidence to support allegations that Hernandez had created a list ranking female lobbyists in order of their physical attractiveness. Hernandez had personally sought the investigation in order to clear his name, and he said at the time he was “the target of harassment, bullying and racism, and a victim of an ugly campaign of rumors."

First elected in 2016, Hernandez represents an East Portland district where Democratic registered voters outnumber Republicans by 27 percentage points. He is the sole Democratic candidate for the seat in the May 19 primary election. Ballots have arrived in the May primary.

The conduct committee hearing against Hernandez appears to have been put together hastily. It was quietly posted to the Legislature’s website just before 11 a.m. on Monday. Rep. Julie Fahey, a Eugene Democrat and co-chair of the committee, said Hernandez had been made aware of the hearing on Monday and declined to testify.

In a statement, Kotek, the House's presiding officer, called the Conduct Committee's vote "a very serious development" and suggested Hernandez resign "to focus on the support he needs." 

"I am deeply concerned that members of the broader Capitol community feel unsafe or subject to retaliation by Rep. Hernandez," Kotek said. "I want those individuals to know they did the right thing by coming forward, and I am grateful to the House Conduct Committee for taking swift action to impose the measures they deemed necessary to address immediate safety concerns."
Copyright 2020 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.