POLITICS

House committee dismisses complaint against Democratic governor nominee Tina Kotek

An Oregon legislative committee on Monday dismissed a complaint alleging that Democratic nominee for governor Tina Kotek created a hostile workplace in the Legislature, while also concluding that legislative rules aren’t strong enough to address unwelcome behavior.

The complaint, settled just over a week before Election Day, stemmed from a heated conversation Kotek, then speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, had with former Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, in 2019.

In January 2021, when Hernandez was the subject of a separate sexual misconduct investigation, he filed his complaint accusing Kotek of bullying him and threatening to end his career if he didn’t vote for a bill cutting pension benefits and then retaliating against him by calling on him to resign. 

Melissa Healy, an attorney with Portland-based Stoel Rives hired by the House to conduct an independent investigation, determined that Kotek didn’t break any rules, in part because the Legislature has different standards for conduct than other workplaces. 

“This was a contentious conversation between two colleagues,” Healy told the House Conduct Committee on Monday. “Everyone agrees it was heated.”

Democratic Reps. John Lively of Springfield and Jason Kropf of Bend and Republican Reps. Raquel Moore-Green of Salem and E. Werner Reschke of Klamath Falls served on the committee, with Lively and Moore-Green as co-chairs. They heard testimony from Hernandez and three current or former legislators earlier in October

The four agreed on a set of facts: Kotek pressured Hernandez to vote for a pension reform bill on May 30, 2019, and Hernandez found Kotek’s behavior during their interaction “unwelcome.” They also agreed that Kotek called on Hernandez to resign on May 4, 2020, and that he didn’t welcome that call.

But they split on whether either incident was an example of severe or pervasive behavior, and whether it affected Hernandez’s ability to do his job. Kropf said Hernandez was able to advocate for his own legislative priorities, including a measure to let undocumented immigrants receive driver’s licenses, vote against the bill Kotek wanted him to support and win re-election in 2020. 

“It seems like he was able to function pretty darn well within this job,” Kropf said. 

Reschke retorted that he knows trauma victims don’t always experience negative mental health effects right away, and that he’s sure Hernandez’s May 2019 conversation with Kotek contributed to his subsequent mental health struggles in 2021. Hernandez told legislators earlier this month that he struggled with depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Reschke added that he wanted to know what the bar was for a heated conversation to become a hostile environment. 

“I always say this is a full-contact sport, and if you come in thinking your uniform’s not gonna get dirty and your nose isn’t gonna get broken, you’re going to be in for a shock,” Reschke said. “But at the same time, we’re professionals and we’re to have a high standard, and we’re going to treat one another with respect even if we very much disagree.” 

Healy said Hernandez didn’t demonstrate there was a routine pattern of harassment and that being yelled at wasn’t enough to claim a hostile workplace, especially as he yelled back at Kotek. She added that Kotek apologized the day after the 2019 conversation. 

After a short recess, Moore-Green said she saw no need for the committee to vote on whether Kotek violated a rule. All four expressed frustration with how the complaint process worked, and how long it took to receive a report from Healy. 

No one has been hired to serve legislative equity officer, a position created in the wake of a 2018 sexual harassment scandal, since the last officer resigned in 2021. The first person hired to fill the job was accused of ignoring complaints and failing to keep proper records, and the second was forced out for allegedly lying on his resume and is now suing the state. In the meantime, complaints are handled by private attorneys hired by the Legislature. 

“I don’t know what the remedy would have been had we come to a conclusion that a rule was violated because neither one of the members are any longer a member of the Legislature,” Lively said. “Whoever serves in the future Legislature has work to do to make this process work.”

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Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.