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Workplace complaint stalls against Tina Kotek, after committee deadlocks

FILE: Democratic nominee Tina Kotek speaks during the gubernatorial debate hosted by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association at Mount Hood Oregon Resort in Welches, Ore., Friday, July 29, 2022.
Jamie Valdez
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FILE: Democratic nominee Tina Kotek speaks during the gubernatorial debate hosted by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association at Mount Hood Oregon Resort in Welches, Ore., Friday, July 29, 2022.

Republicans on the House Conduct Committee said Kotek created a hostile workplace for another lawmaker in 2019. Democrats disagreed.

An Oregon legislative committee could not agree Monday on whether former House Speaker Tina Kotek created a hostile workplace in 2019, when she threatened a fellow Democrat to convince him to vote in favor of a priority bill.

Taking up a long-delayed complaint by former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, the House Committee on Conduct deadlocked along party lines on that crucial question — one that held particular interest a week before Kotek stands for election as the Democratic nominee for governor.

The committee’s two Democratic members, Reps. Jason Kropf and John Lively, agreed with an independent investigator that Kotek’s actions did not violate workplace rules. The two Republicans, Reps. Raquel Moore-Green and E. Werner Reschke, voted that Kotek’s behavior met the definition of creating a hostile environment.

Hernandez’s complaint dates back to May 2019, when Kotek was attempting to pass a bill curbing public pension benefits to achieve savings. Hernandez and other Democrats were uncomfortable with the measure, Senate Bill 1049, which was opposed by unions. Some in the party, including Hernandez, refused to support it.

Legislative arm-twisting is hardly a rarity in Salem. But in his complaint, Hernandez said that Kotek’s attempts to influence him crossed the line. He said that she vowed to oppose his future runs for office and to kill or hamper priority legislation — including a bill supplying driver cards to undocumented residents — if he would not fall in line.

“I was living under constant fear,” Hernandez said at a hearing over the complaint earlier this month. “She used the thing I cared about the most, my community, to try and force me to do something I didn’t want to do.”

Kotek has acknowledged pressuring Hernandez, but has denied his contention that she threatened his political future over the bill. An investigator hired by the Legislature, Melissa Healy with the law firm Stoel Rives, found that Hernandez’s version of events was credible, but said that it did not amount to improper conduct under the Capitol’s workplace rules.

”This kind of conversation could hypothetically be inappropriate in another workplace,” Healy said at an Oct. 19 hearing. “But this is the Legislature, and it is not an ordinary workplace.”

In that earlier hearing, lawmakers on the Conduct Committee heard lengthy testimony from Hernandez about his interaction with Kotek. They also heard from three other current or former lawmakers who supported aspects of his case.

State. Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Myrtle Creek, testified he walked in on Hernandez and Kotek having an argument, and that he heard Kotek threaten to kill one of Hernandez’s bills. Former state Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said Kotek had buried bills he’d sponsored as retribution, and recounted going to Hernandez’s aid following a suicide attempt earlier this year.

Kotek did not appear at the hearing, but has applauded Healy’s finding that she didn’t break workplace policy. “This report is long overdue, but I’m satisfied by the clear conclusion that these were baseless accusations,” Kotek said in a letter to the committee this month.

Monday’s committee meeting was a follow up to the earlier hearing. Lawmakers convened to weigh the evidence they’d heard, and vote on whether they believed the facts showed Kotek had committed misconduct.

Republicans on the committee said she had.

“I always say this is a full contact sport,” said Reschke. “But at the same time, we’re to act as professionals and we’re to have a high standard, and we’re to treat one another with respect… I don’t think this was a polite conversation.”

Democrats disagreed. Kropf said he’d seen no indication that Kotek’s threats had impacted Hernandez’s ability to function in the Capitol, a key element of the state’s hostile workplace rule.

“It seems like he was able to function pretty darn well within the job advocating for his key priorities, making sure those get passed and then being able to seek and win re-election 2020,” said Kropf.

Lively, the committee’s Democratic co-chair, said the fact that Kotek had apologized for threatening one of Hernandez’s bills led him to conclude she had not created a hostile workplace.

The committee also rejected the notion that Kotek created a hostile workplace for Hernandez by calling on him to step down in 2020 as he faced harassment allegations from several women. And it unanimously dismissed the claim that Kotek’s call for Hernandez’s resignation was retaliation because he’d opposed her priority bill on public pensions, Senate Bill 1049, in 2019.

Hernandez ultimately resigned from the Legislature last year, after the Conduct Committee found he had harassed three former romantic partners and as he faced possible expulsion from the House. He has long claimed the allegations against him were overblown, and orchestrated by Kotek as payback for going against her wishes.

Monday’s hearing also marks the end of Hernandez’s complaint, which has turned heads around the Capitol for taking more than 600 days from the day he filed it until an investigatory report was completed. Legislative rules say investigations should be ready within 84 days.

Healy has said that the lengthy process was in part dictated by the five witnesses she spoke to being slow to get back to her. But the process caused enough concern that state Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, is seeking to step down as co-chair of the House Conduct Committee. Bonham, who once filed a complaint against Kotek for swearing at him, recused himself from hearings into this matter.

While lawmakers did not agree on the substance of Hernandez’s complaint on Monday, they did agree that the process for filing and investigating complaints is broken. The Legislature has been unable to fill a key position to that process, ever since the last official to hold it resigned under a cloud.

“We can’t even locate somebody to hold the job,” said Moore-Green, “which is a major, major concern.”

Copyright 2022 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 between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.