Members of the House Conduct Committee are seeking the expulsion of Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, once a rising star within his party, after they determined he created a hostile workplace at the state Capitol.
The four-panel conduct committee voted unanimously to expel Hernandez, a move that has rarely — if ever — been taken before in Oregon’s history. The resolution will now go to the full House for a vote, where it will require 40 members or two-thirds of the 60-member body to approve.
“I hate this decision right now,” said Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland. “But I think the opportunity for change, for ownership, for responsibility has passed. That doesn’t mean reconciliation can’t happen in the future. But what I don’t want to happen is we OK a behavior that has damaged people.”
Lawmakers on the conduct committee spent the last week discussing the allegations of harassment against Hernandez. An outside law firm conducted a 9-month long investigation, which they presented to the conduct committee over the course of the last week. The five women at the heart of the investigation, identified as “subject one” through “subject five,” also offered their testimony.
The women involved in the investigation all worked at the state Capitol or had jobs that required interacting with the state Legislature. Conduct committee members sided with the women, finding Hernandez used his position of power as an elected official to pressure two of them to either resume a relationship with him or jeopardize their careers. Another woman, who had a longer relationship with him, spoke of his controlling and abusive behavior.
The four lawmakers on the House Committee on Conduct, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, determined Hernandez’s actions violated the legislative policies prohibiting sexual harassment and also created a hostile workplace at the state Capitol.
Although the committee vote was unanimous, it was clearly a difficult one for Hernandez’s fellow lawmakers to take.
Several of them appeared emotional while discussing their choices.
Sanchez, a Portland Democrat, pointed out Hernandez, a person of color, could be the first person ever expelled from the House. She noted Hernandez would be held to standards a white man might not be held accountable to.
“That doesn’t make him any less responsible,” Sanchez said. “But it will be the first time we do something like this and it will be a man of color, which is historically the norm.”
Moving forward, Sanchez said, lawmakers need to do better holding “anyone and everyone accountable for” these actions.
Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said expulsion was not a decision she made lightly, due in part to the seriousness of an action to disenfranchise citizens of the state. Hernandez was recently re-elected to his post.
When it came to consequences, Fahey noted, the committee had broad latitude. They could have put in a safety plan or required more robust training. But they were called on to ensure the consequences were sufficient enough to hold the lawmaker accountable and also strict enough to ensure it would deter future behavior.
Fahey’s decision to expel, she said, was not about the number of women who testified, or the number of violations but instead what she called “a clear pattern of behavior.”
The way Hernandez has conducted himself over the course of the investigation also played a role in her decision, Fahey said. Fahey said she was not convinced Hernandez has an understanding yet of why he should be held responsible for his actions.
It was important to “send a strong message to the Capitol community that his behavior will not be tolerated,” Fahey concluded.
Rep. Ron Noble, the one male on the panel, said it should be the state Legislature who is “leading the way” when it comes to creating safe, productive workplaces.
“We should be the ones leading people down the path to what a workplace looks like,” he said.
Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, said she would rather Hernandez be allowed to stay in the state Legislature and seek reconciliation among House members. But she ultimately voted to send the recommendation for expulsion to the full House.
Hernandez’s attorney called the decision “draconian” and one that doesn’t fit the allegations of the case.
“It’s an out-of-proportion action compared to the conduct alleged,” Kevin Lafky, who is representing Hernandez, said on Friday.
Throughout the week of hearings, Lafky said, he tried to present evidence that counters the testimony of the women. Lafky said he has documents and witnesses that counter the narrative that was presented against his client.
“Hopefully we will have a real trial at some point,” Lafky said. “Can a person lose their seat, lose their pay, lose their PERS (pension), lose their reputation without ever having a trial or an opportunity to present their evidence? The last time I looked that wasn’t supposed to happen in this country. … You know if a jury doesn’t hear all the evidence, they probably don’t make a good decision,” he said.
In recent days, the political pressure on Hernandez to resign has increased. On Friday morning, Gov. Kate Brown joined a chorus of politicians, that include 26 members of the state House and Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, asking the East Portland Democratic to step aside or to be expelled.
“The women who came forward and shared their stories were courageous and brave,” Brown said. “Let me be very clear, if this were any other workplace Rep. Hernandez would have already been shown the door. … He should resign immediately.
It is unclear when the vote to expel Hernandez will be scheduled for a floor vote.