Speaker Kotek vows to act following report detailing poor response to sexual abuse, but says report was rushed

In compiling a damning report airing the Oregon Capitol’s dirty laundry, investigators failed to do their due-diligence and interview key witnesses, House Speaker Tina Kotek said Friday. 

The report detailed years of sexual harassment and claimed leadership failed repeatedly in addressing it.

Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Brad Avakian dropped the report on his second to last day in office. It includes allegations against a handful of lawmakers dating back to as early as 2011. However, the most damning part of the report was Avakian’s assessment of how Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek responded, or in Avakian’s eyes, failed to respond.

Kotek said she knew all the details of the report, but having them in one 52-page document was hard to digest.

“It’s not a very simple read,” Kotek said. “In general, particularly for the public, I think it’s a disturbing set of incidents described all in one place.”

Notably, Avakian left out a remedy or recommendation portion. That will be left to Val Hoyle, who will be sworn in as commissioner Monday.

“It is a litany of things that have happened, but no determination past that,” said Kotek, who is referenced often in the report due to her leadership role.

Kotek said she has always acted swiftly and seriously on allegations in the House. She doesn’t agree with the portrait the BOLI report painted of her and Courtney, but said they will work to protect Capitol workers.

“This is a really important issue,” she said. “I don’t want anyone feeling unsafe in the Capitol.”

The report largely centered around years of inappropriate touching and comments by former Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican from Roseburg. After making an informal complaint to Courtney in 2016, Sen. Sara Gelser eluded to being groped by Kruse on Twitter in 2017, then filed a formal complaint. Courtney stripped Kruse from committees in October 2017, a few days after Gelser came forward, and Kruse resigned in March.

Kotek and Courtney were criticized in the BOLI report for hiding instances of sexual harassment, but Kotek said that was for victim confidentiality. With the report out, she worries the accused could identify their accusers and retaliate.

However, she understands policies need to be changed, and said she and Courtney were working to implement suggestions from the Oregon Law Commission prior to Avakian filing his BOLI complaint in August.

The commission was formed by the Legislature in 1997 and is housed at and staffed by the University of Oregon’s law school. It is an independent body that reviews state law and provides recommendation.

Following the Kruse scandal, the commission released a 51-page report on the Capitol’s workplace culture and provided several recommendations, including an independent “Equity Office” which investigates the workplace as well as takes complaints and performs training.

“I am very much focused on the recommendations from the Oregon Law Commission,” Kotek said.  “We have tried to follow our process, and we need new policies and procedures. That was very clear from the investigation into Sen. Kruse.”

Kotek said in the week before the 2019 Legislature convenes on Jan. 22, there will be several days of new, comprehensive workplace training covering civility, implicit bias, how to intervene when bad behavior is witnessed and how to act as a supervisor when dealing with sexual harassment. Kotek said it’s the largest expansion of human resources training since she took the speakership in 2013.

Salem Reporter reached out to Lore Christopher, the Legislature’s human resources director, to see if she also envisioned changes in light of the report. She and Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson were thoroughly dressed down in the report, including accusations they tried to silence those reporting harassment. Christopher deferred comment on human resources policies to Johnson, who did not respond.

When in session, the Legislature employs about 700 people. On top of that, lobbyists and interest groups flood the halls. Kotek said she doesn’t know how Oregon’s culture compares to other legislatures or large workplaces. But she said such a comprehensive look at culture is probably rare, and she found the way Avakian handled it to be odd.

Kotek specifically objected to Avakian’s characterization of a 2017 conversation with Gelser. Gelser was going public with the issue and she and Kotek had a disagreement about how to best handle Kruse’s history of sexual harassment. Kotek told Gelser people were saying Gelser is unlikable and making the sexual harassment issue all about her.

Gelser told BOLI investigators she was hurt by this. The day after the report came out, Kotek took to social media to explain and apologize.

“In no way did I intend to validate those views,” she wrote on Facebook. “I deeply regret that I hurt Senator Gelser or made her feel less supported. I wish I had done a better job articulating the dynamics that I thought she needed to be aware of.”

Gelser is out of the country and hasn’t commented on the report, but Kotek said she plans to apologize in person soon and hopes to repair the relationship.

Kotek said part of the problem with the report was that Avakian’s investigators never requested to talk with her. Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, another one of Kruse’s victims who was referenced often in the report, said the same thing.

“I frankly wish he did more work,” Kotek said. “His investigation was very limited and based on a few sources. I don’t know why he didn’t take more time. Maybe it had something to do with him leaving.”

Going forward, Kotek said time will tell whether she and Courtney can build back any respect lost by their caucuses. But she also saw a silver lining in the airing of the Capitol’s darker side.

“If there is any upside to this conversation, it is now front and center in a really public way,” she said. “This is going to help us move forward.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. 

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