Authorities are investigating whether demonstrators who gained access to the Oregon State Capitol last month were allowed in purposefully by a Republican state lawmaker.
Sources with knowledge of the matter say surveillance footage from the morning shows state Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, exiting the Capitol on the north side of the building, near where demonstrators were gathering to protest restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19. Shortly afterward, some demonstrators gained access to a vestibule within the building, setting off a standoff with state troopers and Salem police that resulted in two arrests.
According to one person with knowledge of the investigation, after Nearman exited the Capitol he appears to have walked around the building and used his ID badge to re-enter from the south side. The Legislature was meeting in a special session on Dec. 21 to approve a variety of new spending measures and extend the state’s ban on residential evictions. The Capitol building has been closed to the public since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reached Thursday morning, Nearman repeatedly declined to discuss the matter. Asked about the footage and whether he’d allowed demonstrators into the Capitol, he repeated: “I just don’t have anything to say.” Nearman asked who had told OPB there was surveillance footage.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, confirmed that Nearman is suspected of involvement. In a press conference Thursday morning, she said she was looking into sanctions for the representative, who just won his fourth term in office.
“OSP has confirmed and informed us that Rep. Mike Nearman did open a door to allow demonstrators into the building,” Kotek said. “This was a serious, serious breach of public trust. His actions put staff and legislators and law enforcement in danger.”
Kotek said she had been waiting for an ongoing criminal investigation into the breach to conclude to speak out, but decided to switch course. She is now exploring potential non-criminal sanctions for Nearman. That could include stripping him of committee assignments, a step Kotek can take unilaterally, or lodging a formal complaint that would spur an internal investigation and could lead to discipline up to expulsion.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, has not responded to repeated questions about the matter since Dec. 21. Nearman did not respond Thursday when asked if he has been contacted by state police in the matter.
An OPB public records request for surveillance footage has not been fulfilled, and a legislative lawyer told OPB Wednesday the state could claim a public-records-law exemption that covers the legislative branch in the run-up to a legislative session.
Nearman has served in the state House since 2015 and is one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans. He has worked on an unsuccessful attempt to recall Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, is a plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to overturn Brown’s emergency orders to address COVID-19 and was recently among 11 sitting state lawmakers to sign a letter in support of a Texas lawsuit challenging the presidential election in four states.
Nearman’s been tied to right-wing protests at the Capitol before. In 2017, his then-legislative aide gave a gun to a convicted felon, who then brought it to a pro-Trump demonstration at the building, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Court records show the aide, Angela Roman, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the incident.
While demonstrators were eventually cleared from the Capitol after their incursion on Dec. 21, some in their number clashed and used pepper spray against officers. Some vandalized the Capitol, breaking panes on glass doors. At least one man was captured on camera assaulting or intimidating members of the press who were on hand outside the building.
The demonstration was billed as a “flash mob” to protest the fact that the state Capitol is closed to the public during the pandemic, as well as to convey anger over business closures and other restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Among groups publicizing the protest was Patriot Prayer, a far-right group whose events have led to violence and attracted white supremacists.
“Legislative staff and members felt terrorized by the incursion,” Kotek said Thursday. “Particularly, our members who are members of color because the rhetoric of the demonstrators is out of the Trump playbook and very much caters to white supremacist motivations.”
State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, told OPB Thursday that the Legislature’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Caucus sent a memo to leaders, asking for an additional security briefing and stepped up safety protocols for its members.
“Communities of color have been complaining about the lack of preparation, the lack of security,” said Bynum, who is Black. “We always feel like we’re sitting ducks. You’re easy to pick out.”
The incursion into the state Capitol is being viewed in an even more serious light after a mob of far-right supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, forcing both chambers of Congress to evacuate.
Even before that, Kotek and Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney had pledged to take a hard look at Capitol safety rules in Salem. On Thursday, they released a plan for how the Capitol would operate during the special session that begins Jan. 11. Part of that plan includes enhanced training for lawmakers on how to deal with demonstrations at the Capitol.
“This plan will include support for staff who feel unsafe traveling to and from their vehicles when members and staff should use the panic button, and additional guidance,” according to a Capitol Operations Safety Plan released by legislative leaders.
As expected, the Oregon Capitol will remain closed to the public for the early portion of session, with lawmakers meeting in virtual committee meetings for most of the first three months.
Lawmakers will limit their in-person appearances to floor sessions required to either pass bills or introduce new measures for consideration, Kotek and Courtney said. Staff in the building will be limited in those times, and anyone on hand will be required to wear masks or respirators except for when they’re alone in their offices.
Democratic lawmakers, who control both chambers, said they will not consider reopening the Capitol to the public until March at the earliest — and before reopening will require that Marion County reach the lowest tier of Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 reopening framework for Oregon counties.
Republicans have largely disagreed with the approach and have argued the state Capitol should remain open to the public.
“COVID is a real threat and I believe very strongly we should be masked and under the same restrictions that Wal-Mart or Home Depot is under or any other stores,” said Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton.
Girod said they could limit the number of people allowed in the building and maintain a social distance. But, the state Capitol should be allowed to open the same way certain retail stores have been able to open, he argued. Republicans have said it’s unconstitutional to shutter the statehouse to the public.
“I believe very strongly the public plays a huge role in the making of laws, not only the input but the oversight they have as well. We deal with billions of dollars and if there is no oversight, things can go astray really quickly. I think we have to open the building,” Girod said, adding the quality of input is not the same over Zoom.
“Looking at someone’s picture on a camera is a lot different than seeing them in person and I think the impact they have on a committee is a lot different,” Girod said.
Without the public’s input, he argued, “things can go astray really quickly.”
Lauren Dake contributed to this report.