A Republican state lawmaker says she was subjected to sexual harassment and pressured to engage in a “quid-pro-quo” arrangement via text message by longtime state Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie.
State Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson, R-Prineville, outlined those allegations Monday in a letter sent to House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat. Breese Iverson has asked that Kotek remove Witt from each of the three legislative committees she and he both serve on.
“The fact Representative Witt chose to sexually harass me leaves us no room for any future ability to have real discussions regarding committee business or other House Floor business,” Breese Iverson wrote. “The quid-pro-quo he texted me is an inexcusable abuse of his power. Experiencing this sexual harassment is something I should not have to be exposed to or accept as a course of business, especially in today’s Capitol culture.”
Breese Iverson demanded that Kotek “immediately temporarily remove him from all committees that we serve on together.” Kotek’s office said Tuesday the speaker was setting up a meeting with the state’s legislative equity officer, who fields harassment complaints, about options for responding.
While the contents of the text or texts Breese Iverson referred to remain unclear, the letter adds new details to allegations that emerged against Witt last week.
In a Friday hearing of the House Conduct Committee, legislators learned that a lawmaker had filed a formal complaint against Witt under the Legislature’s “safe, respectful and inclusive workplace” rule. Complaints under that rule can involve a wide variety of behavior.
Few details were given in the hearing — including Breese Iverson’s identity — but an independent investigator looking into the complaint recommended that Witt be prohibited from contacting or coming near Breese Iverson and that he be removed from chairing the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, of which Breese Iverson is a member.
The investigator, private attorney Sarah Ryan, said she had no reason to believe Breese Iverson’s physical safety was in jeopardy.
The committee, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, wound up concluding that recommending Witt’s removal as committee chair was not warranted. That was a position pushed strongly by state Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, who noted that Witt had already offered to temporarily step down while an investigation played out and that forcing him out could be seen as a punishment rather than the “interim safety measure” lawmakers were tasked with considering.
“The committee recommending that the speaker remove someone’s chairship does potentially verge on the punitive,” Fahey said. “If he wants to voluntarily step down temporarily, I would support that.”
The committee ultimately issued a no-contact order between Witt and Breese Iverson as an interim safety measure. Republicans have since said that more action is needed.
“The events of last Monday demonstrated a clear abuse of power and sexual harassment from one elected official with seniority and power over another,” Breese Iverson wrote in her letter to Kotek. She continued: “I felt betrayed when arguments were made to oppose the recommendation to remove Representative Witt as Chair. In thinking of the interactions that would be required of us, I knew the restrictions would not be enough to ensure my safety from his inappropriate advances.”
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby offered a similar sentiment.
“Co-chair Fahey’s rejection of the independent investigator’s recommendation to temporarily remove Chair Witt from his committee shows a shameful disregard for the pressing need for interim safety measures to protect the victim,” Drazan wrote in a statement Friday.
After Witt volunteered to temporarily step down as committee chair, Kotek made that change formal on Monday. In a note to lawmakers, she said Witt would not attending virtual committee hearings “in an abundance of caution for the parties involved.”
For his part, Witt has said he believes “101% that it will be found that there was no ill intent on my part whatsoever, but rather an attempt to further the committee interests.” He did not immediately respond to OPB’s request for comment on Tuesday morning.
Ryan, the independent investigator, said she expects the investigation to be wrapped up by the end of April. The matter would then go before the House Conduct Committee to consider whether Witt violated legislative rules, and whether there should be consequences.
Fahey, a co-chair of that committee, reiterated her reasons Tuesday for declining to recommend Witt be forcefully removed as chair as an interim step.
“Given that the alleged conduct happened over text, and that the investigator testified that there was not an immediate safety risk, Co-Chair [Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville,] and I felt that a no contact order was sufficient to prevent any additional interactions between the parties for the duration of the investigation,” Fahey said in an email.
She added that, if the committee ultimately concludes Witt has violated workplace rules, “at that time, we can recommend committee or chairship removal, training/counseling, censure, expulsion, or anything else that we think is needed to reprimand him and deter future inappropriate behavior.”
Witt is the second lawmaker to face sexual harassment allegations this legislative session. Former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, stepped down in March after the House Conduct Committee voted to recommend he be expelled over his conduct toward several women.
The issue of workplace harassment in the Capitol has been a focal point in recent years, following revelations beginning in 2017 that former state Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, repeatedly harassed other lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists. But the Legislature’s process for dealing with such conduct, known as “Rule 27,” has been a source of continued criticism, with some arguing it doesn’t protect victims, and others worried it is unfair to the accused.