Despite increasing pressure on Rep. Diego Hernandez to resign amid allegations he harassed women, the Democratic lawmaker is fighting back.
A nine-month-long investigation into Hernandez’s behavior found the state lawmaker created a hostile workplace environment and made two women feel pressure to either rekindle their relationships with the East Portland lawmaker or risk jeopardizing their careers. Another woman who was in a long-term relationship with the lawmaker said he was controlling and abusive.
Legislative hearings into Hernandez’s behavior are underway at the state Capitol and are expected to last for most of the week.
Hernandez’s attorney, Kevin Lafky, read a seven-page statement from the lawmaker on Monday evening.
“The report alleges that I blurred the lines between personal and professional relationships with my consensual romantic partners, and that had a negative impact on their work,” Hernandez’s statement read. “Please let me unequivocally say that I am very sorry that I made anyone uncomfortable.”
But Hernandez, through his attorney, said the relationships had nothing to do with his work as a lawmaker. Hernandez emphasized points where he felt the investigative process was flawed and noted he also submitted a 40-page rebuttal to the investigation, which is not public. It’s unclear if lawmakers have had access to Hernandez’s rebuttal.
“Many have read the report without having had the benefit of my response and substantial evidence … It appears that, even as this process proceeds, powerful people want to push me out of my duly elected position,” Hernandez said.
The women speak
For the first time on Monday night, Legislative Equity Officer Jackie Sandmeyer revealed there were 13 people who came forward with possible stories of being subjected to inappropriate behavior by Hernandez.
Many did not participate in the investigation, Sandmeyer said, some out of fear their identities would be revealed. Five women are part of the final investigative report, three of whom investigators were able to substantiate their claims against Hernandez.
One of the women, known as ‘subject two’, testified to lawmakers on Monday night. Her statement was read by another woman. The meeting was virtual and ‘subject two’s’ identity was not revealed.
The woman said she had known Hernandez for many years, having met him in college.
“It is heartbreaking to come forward to you all today to say that this person who I’ve profoundly loved is violent and abusive, and should be expelled from the legislature,” she said.
She accused the lawmaker of “controlling and abusive behavior, retaliation, and public gaslighting” that has hurt her and her family.
“Once, after yelling at and berating me for over three hours, he threw his cell phone at me, along with multiple other items,” the woman said. “He said it was because he saw me dancing with someone else. I was so scared my mind and body froze, and I remember thinking ‘don’t move or he’s gonna hit you.’”
She said it started to impact her career and her work in the state Capitol.
“He created a hostile working environment by continuing to control my every move, making me hyper-alert at community events and meetings, especially in the evening or the weekends,” she said. “My anxiety became more pronounced and I was in a constant state of fear.”
The woman said she started to shut down.
“My workplace was no longer a place I could safely exist in or work, but rather a place where my abuser continued to have power.”
She urged lawmakers to expel Hernandez from the Legislature.
Disregarding his behavior, she said, would minimize the laws of the state and seriousness of abuse.
“Particularly as it affects Black, Indigenous, and other women of color,” she said. “You would be sending the message to Oregon’s Latinx community that machismo and violence against women is OK and met without consequences or accountability. Our Latinx community is watching and waiting to see if our state can hold this person accountable.”
The investigation was conducted by Sarah Ryan and Kira Johal, with the law firm Jackson Lewis P.C.
The investigative report released last week details several “findings” based on each allegation against the lawmaker. The investigators were charged with providing relevant facts and detailing what they learned but were not asked whether they believed Hernandez violated any workplace harassment rules. That will be up to lawmakers on the House Conduct Committee to consider.
Lawmakers will also go through each finding detailed by the investigators — such as ‘did Hernandez throw a cell phone? Was he verbally and physically threatening?’ — and decide whether they agree with the investigation.
The four members of the House Conduct Committee voted on Monday agreeing with the bulk of the investigators’ findings.
For the remaining hearings, lawmakers will continue a similar process. More women are expected to testify and lawmakers are expected to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the facts presented by investigators.
Based on what they decide, they will then determine what consequences, if any, Hernandez should face.
To expel a lawmaker, the committee would have to send that recommendation to the entire House. It would take a two-thirds vote of the full body.
The committee could settle on a range of consequences from censuring, to requiring further training, to recommending a security plan to try and ensure women feel safe around Hernandez.
Losing outside support
Leading up to the first hearing, held on Monday evening, several of Hernandez’s former allies made it evident they no longer support the embattled lawmaker.
A group of more than 130 individuals and political groups wrote a letter to the House Committee on Conduct calling for a “strong and swift” response to Hernandez’s behaviors.
Former state lawmaker and current Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson was one of several elected leaders who signed on to the letter.
“The report that came out last week paints a very clear picture of an elected leader who used his power to repeatedly harass, intimidate, and employ other abusive behaviors toward multiple members of the community that work within the State Capitol,” Vega Pederson said in a statement.
The Oregon Education Association urged the state lawmaker to step down. The union’s president John Larson wrote the lawmaker “abused his power and created a hostile work environment” and the union no longer had confidence Hernandez could effectively do his job.
The state’s largest public employee labor union, Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, said it would no longer allow its staff to conduct business with Hernandez, a considerable hit for a Democratic lawmaker who was once considered a strong ally.
“SEIU believes Rep. Hernandez has engaged in sexual harassment of at least two women whom he had professional contact with and used his power to threaten their careers and credibility in the Capitol,” a statement from the union’s leaders read. “SEIU will no longer allow any of our staff or members to conduct business of any nature with Rep. Hernandez and we ask that you take appropriate action to protect other Capitol staff and members of the lobby.”
Hearings are set to resume Tuesday evening.