Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, chairs the Committee on Human Services.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, presides over the Senate Human Services Committee in 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

An Oregon state senator has been cleared of allegations that she retaliated against her chief of staff when the staffer took protected medical leave last year.

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In a hearing Wednesday morning, the Senate’s Conduct Committee found there was insufficient evidence that Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, had treated Laura Hanson harshly for taking leave and in another case dissuaded her from taking time from work off for mental health reasons.

The votes were rooted in a report by an independent investigator, Portland attorney Brenda Baumgart, who said she’d found no evidence Gelser had violated the Legislature’s personnel rules around harassment and retaliation. That investigation included interviews and a review of extensive communications between Gelser and Hanson. Hanson has argued those records left out in-person conversations in which she was treated poorly and encouraged to delay mental health leave, something Gelser has denied.

While the committee’s decision ends the inquiry into Gelser’s conduct, the case has helped to change problematic rules for how the Legislature handles reports of harassment and retaliation.

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The matter arose in late December, when Hanson raised concerns with Gelser that their working relationship had become untenable and toxic. Gelser then reported those comments to human resources staff, as required under the Capitol’s rules — essentially lodging a report about herself.

In the ensuing process, a formal investigation was launched into the matter and Hanson was put on paid leave. Even though Hanson objected to her allegations becoming public, under the Legislature’s rules a final investigatory report was required to go before lawmakers in an open hearing.

Hanson has argued forcefully that such a process dissuades victims of harassment from coming forward for fear of having their situations laid bare.

“I think this makes the Capitol a more dangerous place, to be perfectly honest,” she said earlier this year.

Lawmakers have since attempted to address the scenario. Under a bill passed in an August special session, policy was changed to prevent lawmakers like Gelser from being required to self-report allegations against themselves. The bill also ensures so-called “impacted parties” in Hanson’s position going forward will have more say in whether a public hearing occurs.

A hearing first occurred in the Gelser case in July, but lawmakers held off on making formal findings when Hanson raised the possibility that the investigation was incomplete because she was not given access to her work emails. She has since been granted a copy of those emails, and submitted additional materials for consideration. Baumgart, the investigator, said they did not change her conclusions.

Lawmakers on the four-person committee voted unanimously that there was not sufficient evidence that Gelser had tried to dissuade Hanson from taking leave in December 2019 or that she had retaliated against Hanson for taking medical leave months earlier.

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