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In Blistering Exit, Former Capitol Official Slams How Oregon Handles Harassment

Nate Monson, bottom left, addresses lawmakers during a hearing in April.
Dirk VanderHart
Nate Monson, bottom left, addresses lawmakers during a hearing in April.

Nate Monson served as the legislative equity officer for just months before quitting what he says was an untenable position.

In June, after just two months on the job, the official who Oregon lawmakers rely on to handle harassment complaints in the state Capitol resigned.

But Nate Monson, the state’s acting legislative equity officer, did more than just quit.

In a letter and accompanying memo filed as he left, Monson fired off a barrage of troubling allegations that paint a picture of disarray as state leaders seek to address harassment and other workplace issues in the Capitol.

Monson wrote about the Legislature spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside lawyers, without a competitive bidding process. He said the law firms investigating reports of inappropriate behavior hadn’t been paid on time more than once, causing those lawyers to stop work and drawing out even further the time between the actual bad behavior and the state’s response. He mentioned empty file cabinets and complaints that had apparently languished with no response.

“When I started, there were no case files, electronic documents, trainings scheduled, and bills that were unpaid resulting in investigations lasting on average 10 months over this past year,” Monson wrote. “There were outstanding cases where individuals tried to file but heard nothing back. The severity of the situation means that justice is not being given to those who have come forward and may cost taxpayers millions in lawsuits from the liability of not having proper procedures, documentation, and oversight.”

The scathing synopsis offers a dismal view of a system created in 2019, after accusations of long-term sexual harassment by a former state senator rocked the Capitol. In the wake of that scandal, lawmakers crafted what’s known as Rule 27, the Capitol’s formal policy for dealing with allegations of harassment, retaliation and other negative conduct.

The legislative equity officer, or LEO, has a major role in the Rule 27 process, with responsibility for fielding complaints, assessing reports of misconduct, offering confidential process counseling and more.

Monson’s allegations are partly geared toward his predecessor in the role, Jackie Sandmeyer. Sandmeyer was the first person to hold the position and thus was tasked with getting the operation up and running when they began in late 2019.

But Monson also says lawmakers who control the process, the chairs of the Joint Conduct Committee, were at times unconcerned with problems he raised.

“When I started, people would say, ‘This place is crazy,’” Monson told OPB. “I felt like they warned me this is a terrible job.”

Monson arrived at the Capitol in April, following what he says was a lengthy interview process. He’d previously spent more than a decade in Iowa, working for the anti-bullying nonprofit organizationIowa Safe Schools.

Sandmeyer, the former acting LEO, had made the decision to leave the position.

Monson officially assumed his position on April 12, moving into an office located in the Capitol’s basement. By June 15, he was penning his blistering resignation letter. He now says he knew that first day he might not last long in the building.

“I kind of knew it was kind of a mess,” he said.

For now, at least, that account has gone unchallenged. Capitol officials have not been keen to discuss Monson’s departure.

His former direct supervisors are the four Conduct Committee chairs — Sens. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, along with Reps. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and Ron Noble, R-McMinnville. All four declined to discuss Monson’s resignation or the reasons behind it. Most also did not respond to questions about his claims.

The state’s two most powerful lawmakers, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, largely deflected inquiries, saying oversight of the position was vested with the Conduct Committee.

“The Legislative Equity Office is an independent, standalone office that is accountable to the bipartisan Joint Conduct Committee,” Courtney, a Salem Democrat, said in a statement. “I am confident the committee will deal with this situation in a fair and objective manner.”

Kotek’s chief of staff, Lindsey O’Brien, acknowledged that the House speaker, a Portland Democrat, was aware of at least some of the issues Monson raised.

“The Conduct co-chairs have since brought those concerns to the Speaker’s attention and she supports their efforts to get to the bottom of any past problems and increase financial and administrative oversight of the office moving forward,” O’Brien said in an email.

Sandmeyer, however, was caught off guard by Monson’s complaints, saying Monson had not raised them when the two worked together.

“While I offered Mr. Monson an additional three months of my time in the office after he assumed the role, to ensure his transition was smooth, Mr. Monson notified me early into this transition timeline that my assistance was no longer needed,” Sandmeyer said in an email to OPB. “He told me he was confident in his responsibilities in the role and thanked me for my support. At no time while we were working together nor afterward did Mr. Monson bring any concerns to my attention, request additional information nor let me know that he was experiencing challenges in the role.”

Sandmeyer, who runs a firm that helps instruct schools on federal and state discrimination and sexual violence laws, stands by their work in the Capitol. They did not address Monson’s allegations point by point.

“I have years of experience working to change workplace culture and guide institutions on best practices for training, reporting, and investigating sexual harassment and misconduct and I brought all that experience into my work in the Legislative Equity Office,” Sandmeyer wrote. “I believe my record in the interim position in the Legislature and with the hundreds of clients and organizations I have worked with in the past stand on their own merit.”

The tumult over how the lawmakers address bad behavior comes as the topic is coming up more often.

In March, former Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland,resigned after a Rule 27 investigation led to findings he’d harassed former romantic partners who worked in the Capitol. In June, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, lost his committee chairship after a Rule 27 complaint about inappropriate text messages. Now-expelled Rep, Mike Nearman, a Polk County Republican, was the subject of a Rule 27 investigation after he allowed far-right demonstrators into the Capitol.

But the process has been clunky, despite its increased use. One frequent criticism: that investigations under Rule 27 have often extended far past an 84-day target set forth in the rule, angering both complainants and respondents who want the process over with.

One of Monson’s more serious claims offers insight into at least some of that delay.

When he took control of the Legislative Equity Office in April, he wrote, the Legislature owed more than $200,000 to two private law firms that conduct formal investigations into Rule 27 complaints. Those investigations frequently involve interviewing witnesses and analyzing documents before issuing findings, but Monson told OPB that unpaid bills had repeatedly led lawyers to stop work until an invoice was taken care of.

In other cases, the two firms, Stoel Rives and Jackson Lewis ran up against pay limits in their state contracts and ceased working until those contracts could be amended to approve more money.

According to Monson, those work stoppages extended investigations into Witt and others. Some of those inquiries have extended months past their target date for completion.

“This is having real profound impact on complainants and respondents,” he said. “You could be removed from a committee if you’re a member while this is under an investigation, and that has real consequences to your constituents. Or a staff member is on administrative leave for 10 months — a 10-month vacation paid for by Oregon taxpayers.”

But Monson says he didn’t get a lot of interest when he reported the problem to his supervisors, the Conduct Committee chairs.

“When I let the conduct chairs know that this had happened after I started, they kind of rolled their eyes,” Monson said. “They glossed over it as an administrative oversight.”

Monson says he ran into no problems getting bills paid promptly during his months on the job and isn’t sure why it was an issue before his arrival. He also says he was able to quickly amend ongoing contracts with Jackson Lewis and Stoel Rives to allow them to be paid $100,000 more, even though legislative attorneys advised him it was unethical for the state to pay the firms such large sums without a competitive process.

Under most circumstances,state law requires public contracts that exceed $150,000 to use a formal procurement process. “Original amounts were below the formal bidding process but have ballooned to over $500,000 for each firm to continue to do their work,” Monson wrote, calling the practice “inappropriate.”

OPB has filed a public records request for all contracts and contract amendments for Rule 27 investigations, but the state has not provided those documents. The two independent investigators the state works with, Brenda Baumgart and Sarah Ryan, did not answer questions about work stoppages and how they impacted investigations. Baumgart referred questions to the Legislature. (Full disclosure: Baumgart has done legal work for OPB in the past.)

Another major concern by Monson involves records. Under Rule 27, it’s up to the Joint Conduct Committee to “establish uniform recordkeeping processes” that the equity office must use, and to ensure that reports of inappropriate conduct are “well documented.”

But Monson said he arrived on his first day to find he had neither digital nor paper copies of past case files. He says Sandmeyer handed him a post-it note that contained details of ongoing cases.

As he looked over old emails, Monson said it was unclear whether some potential complaints had been addressed. In one case he found an account filed months before, but no evidence Sandmeyer had contacted the complainant.

“There is a track record of individuals reporting and cases being unheard,” Monson wrote.

In another instance, he believes that Sandmeyer incorrectly handled a complaint filed by House Democrats over the conduct of Nearman, the now-expelled state representative. Monson says Sandmeyer indicated that the lawmakers decided not to proceed with the complaint, which was not true and delayed an investigation.

“Unpaid bills is one column,” Monson said. “But to not have documentation and data and everything you need to do this job correctly is really serious.”

In the wake of Monson’s resignation, lawmakers have temporarilyfarmed out some of his duties to the very attorneys the Capitol has apparently failed to pay on time.

“Due to unforeseen circumstances, the legislature needs to undergo a new recruitment process and recruit a new Legislative Equity Officer,” the Conduct Committee chairs wrote in a June 23 email to Capitol staff. In the meantime, they wrote, “core LEO office functions” will be completed by the firms, Stoel Rives and Jackson Lewis.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the sole Conduct Committee chair to respond to any of OPB’s questions, says that arrangement is fine until he and his colleagues can find a replacement.

“Without an LEO in place, the office is not functioning as intended,” Prozanski said. “We are currently in the process of hiring a new LEO.”

Monson, who moved to Oregon from Iowa to accept a position he says is set up to fail, believes they shouldn’t rush. In his memo to lawmakers, he recommends a “thorough evaluation” of the office, along with a “strategic plan and vision for the office for the next Officer to be successful and have a starting place.”

“I came nearly 2,000 miles to do good work,” Monson wrote in his resignation letter. “For the sake of the next person, take some time to consider the office, the role, and how to be strategic in its functions.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit 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.