Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-East Portland, sits at his desk on the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives Feb. 5, 2018. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)
When state Rep. Diego Hernandez heard a rumor in May 2017 accusing him of keeping a list ranking women lobbyists at the Oregon Capitol by attractiveness, he asked legislative attorneys to investigate.
After interviewing 21 staffers and others, legislative attorneys found no evidence that such a list ever existed, according to a Sept. 15, 2017, letter from Deputy Legislative Counsel Jessica Santiago.
Yet the unsubstantiated claim was included in a bombshell report issued Jan. 3 by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries accusing legislative leaders of ignoring prevalent sexual harassment at the Capitol. The report resulted from a complaint that Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian filed with his own agency on behalf of legislative staffers and interns who said they were the victims of sexual harassment.
“As a victim of harassment in my freshman year in the Legislature, I feel thrown under the bus by Brad Avakian,” Hernandez said in a phone interview Friday, Jan. 4.
But several who had firsthand knowledge of the allegations or were mentioned in the report, including Hernandez, said they were not interviewed by BOLI investigators.
When the rumor surfaced, Hernandez was serving his first term in the Oregon House of Representatives representing parts of East Portland.
Hernandez suspected at the time that the rumor was invented by his political foes, including one legislator, to silence his impassioned floor speeches on immigrant rights and to undermine his effectiveness as a lawmaker. He said the Labor Bureau published “gossip and hearsay” that was picked up in press reports and played “right into the hands of those who sought to target and harass me.”
“It is remarkable that BOLI, an agency charged with protecting the civil rights of Oregonians, would further a racially motivated, defamatory smear about me,” Hernandez wrote in an email to Oregon Capital Bureau. “It also defies logic that in the course of the investigation conducted that they never asked to speak with me about my experiences – which have included racism, bullying, threats and harassment by those who started and fueled the smear to silence me after my strong stances on civil and immigrant rights.”
Avakian did not respond to a call Friday, Jan. 4, from the Oregon Capital Bureau seeking comment. His spokeswoman, Christine Stone, said the agency doesn’t comment on an open investigation. Friday was Avakian’s last day in office. Val Hoyle was scheduled to be sworn in as the new labor commissioner Monday.
She has declined to comment on how she plans to proceed with the report.
Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-East Portland, visits with high school students in Portland Sept. 27, 2018, during a statewide tour by the joint legislative Committee on School Success. (Jonathan House/Portland Tribune)
Hernandez is mentioned three times in the 52-page report, but none of the sources cited are firsthand.
In one instance, the report said that state Sen. Sara Gelser told investigators that she heard there was “an altercation” over the purported list. The dispute was between a lobbyist, the lobbyist’s husband and Hernandez at a party celebrating the last day of the legislative session.
The report stated that the lobbyist and her husband “did not feel like the interaction in itself was appropriate” and reported it to Lore Christopher, human resources director at the Legislature.
“This is what I’ve heard from members of the lobby about this – that they then went to meet with Lore Christopher to do a complaint and went to the Speaker’s Office, but that Lore Christopher told them that it wouldn’t go anywhere because he was an up-and-coming person that was going to have a lot of power,” Gelser said, according to the state report.
Investigators didn’t specify what the couple reported to Christopher and make no mention of interviewing the couple.
The report said investigators questioned Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson’s characterization of the Hernandez rumor as false. Asked how Johnson distinguished between a claim being false versus unsubstantiated, Johnson replied he uses “the terms in conversation as synonyms,” the report stated.
The final mention of Hernandez in the report is when Santiago, another legislative attorney, confirmed that Hernandez requested “‘a fact-finding inquiry to determine whether or not the rumors were true or to find out also who may have been the source of the rumor.’”
Legislative attorneys’ probe into the validity of the rumor included interviews of 21 lobbyists, legislative staffers and lawmakers and found no evidence of the existence of such a list.
They also sought to interview two additional people, according to a Sept. 15, 2017, letter to Hernandez from Santiago that he made public. One issued a statement through her attorney – that provided no evidence of a list; the other refused to participate in the investigation, the letter states.
“We did find ample evidence that individuals had engaged in spreading the rumor that such a list existed, but none of those engaged in rumormongering ever had personal knowledge or evidence of such a list,” Santiago wrote.
“Several interviewees stated that they assumed the rumor was baseless because it seemed to be completely out of character with that they knew of your values and integrity,” the letter said.
Hernandez said it’s important to believe victims of harassment, whether racial or other forms of hate.
“There is a lot of work that remains to be done to ensure that the Oregon Capitol is a safe and healthy environment for everyone,” he wrote. “We must end this culture of harassment and be proactive and swift in our efforts to rid the Capitol of this toxic working environment.”
Paris Achen: [email protected] or 503-506-0067. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.