State Rep. Brad Witt violated workplace rules against sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment with a series of texts to a fellow lawmaker in April, a House committee found Tuesday evening.
But the House Conduct Committee found that, contrary to an allegation against him, Witt did not intend to create a quid pro quo arrangement with Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson in which he would exchange his vote on a bill for a date or sexual favors.
Instead, the committee’s conclusions centered around the ambiguity of Witt’s text messages, the fact they could reasonably be perceived as sexual, and testimony from Breese Iverson and others that she was severely shaken by the exchange.
“[Witt’s] text messages were clearly inappropriate and intended to make me feel I needed to accept spending time with the respondent to further any conversation about my bill,” Breese Iverson told the committee. “These events continue to upset me each time I go back through it.”
On April 12, Breese Iverson, R-Prineville; texted Witt, D-Clatskanie, to ask for his vote on one of her proposals; House Bill 2616. Witt responded that he could not support the bill, a proposal over water rights on a specific piece of land.
After a few texts on the bill, Witt diverted the discussion, texting: “We probably need to go for a beer sometime.”
When Breese Iverson didn’t acknowledge the message and instead kept selling her bill, Witt wrote: “I’m not wedded to a beer by any means. Could be dinner or…...?”
“Or what?” Breese Iverson texted. Witt replied: “I’ve made two offerings. If you wanna meet, find something better than dinner or beer.”
“Trying to get a vote count,” Breese Iverson replied.
Breese Iverson filed a complaint against Witt the next day alleging he’d tried to offer a suggestive quid-pro-quo: his vote in exchange for a meeting away from work settings.
An investigation by private attorney Sarah Ryan found Breese Iverson was sincere and justified in feeling offended by the text. Breese Iverson said Tuesday that her reaction went deeper than being offended.
Breese Iverson said she showed the text exchange to several fellow lawmakers, who agreed that Witt meant to suggest something with the text — particularly the final message about finding “something better.” Breese Iverson said the exchange ultimately prompted her to stay in her office, skip lunch breaks, and peek out her door for fear of running into Witt.
The situation was especially problematic, she said, because she acts as vice-chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which Witt chaired until the complaint was filed.
“I was shaken by the exchange and further shaken knowing I would be unable to attend the duties I have as vice-chair,” Breese Iverson said.
Other lawmakers have also said they saw how the exchange impacted Breese Iverson’s ability to do her job.
But, the investigation concluded that Witt hadn’t meant to suggest anything untoward.
“Respondent did not intend to offer his vote on Complainant’s bill, in exchange for a date or sexual favors, or to comment on sexual matters,” Ryan wrote in the investigation. She reiterated the point several times in Tuesday’s hearing.
In testimony of his own Tuesday, Witt apologized for making Breese Iverson uncomfortable. But he was also unequivocal in denying any sexual intent to the texts.
“Never — not now, and not when I texted — did I intend or expect my words to be construed as lewd, salacious or in any way inappropriate,” he told the committee.
Rather, Witt said he had grown concerned when Breese Iverson opposed three of his most important bills of the legislative session, and bristled when she texted him to ask if he’d vote for her bill. He’d already voted against the proposal in committee.
“It was time for me to explain, ‘Look, it is unreasonable to expect that someone’s going to change their position for you, particularly when you can’t support the key pieces of their agenda,” Witt said.
Witt said that he has often met lawmakers for drinks and meals — and once even to target shoot — in order to foster a better relationship.
“Talking in a more informal social setting makes it easier to put aside differences and to listen to one another,” he said. “That was solely my goal here.”
Members of Witt’s staff submitted testimony confirming that he had grown concerned over his relationship with Breese Iverson and hoped to improve it.
“It was well known among staffers that around the time he sent the text message, Rep. Witt was actively planning to meet with Complainant offsite to have a difficult discussion about her conduct on the committee and efforts to undermine him,” Witt’s chief of staff, Caleb Hayes, wrote.
In her report, Ryan wrote that witnesses had suggested that Witt is merely “not a good texter,” often multitasking while he writes and muddled in his communications.
Regardless of Witt’s intent, lawmakers ultimately seemed to agree with Ryan that the texts could be seen in a sexual light. That was enough for the committee to find that Witt had breached legislative rules against sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, which only required that Breese Iverson reasonably interpreted the texts as sexual, and that they impacted her ability to work.
Those two key findings were split votes on the conduct committee. Three representatives, Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem; Ron Noble, R-McMinnville; and Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, all voted to support those details. A fourth member, Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, said she didn’t see it.
“I’m a little concerned that we will get to a place where we can’t have a conversation,” Sanchez said. “My concern is we will get to a place where perception becomes nine-tenths of the law versus intention.”
The conduct committee did not discuss what an appropriate “remedy” for Witt’s violation would be. It will take up that matter at another hearing.
Since the very beginning, the allegations against Witt have divided lawmakers. Republicans accused Democrats of protecting one of their own in April when Witt didn’t have his committee chairship forcefully stripped following the complaint against him. He voluntarily stepped down as chair while the investigation played out.
More recently, Ryan’s investigation saw pushback from Republican lawmakers who say she cut out any mention of the concerns they raised about Witt.
Reps. Shelley Boshart Davis and Daniel Bonham said they both told Ryan things that could potentially be of interest in determining whether Witt has had a pattern of questionable behavior. Boshart Davis said she explained that it was “common knowledge” in the Capitol not to be left in a room alone with Witt, though she says she never experienced any harassing or untoward behavior from the lawmaker. Bonham says he told Ryan about an off-color joke Witt made to him. The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported the lawmakers’ versions of events.
But in Ryan’s report, no such information was reflected. On the subject of Witt’s behavior, the investigator only made mention of “three women who have worked in or at the Capitol for many years” and who found Witt’s behavior “above reproach” in social settings.
“That’s the part where I just got upset,” Boshart Davis told OPB last week. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Bonham said he’d been helping Breese Iverson figure out how to respond to Witt’s texts on April 12, and had concluded ultimately that they were harassing. The same day, he says he went to see House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, and spilled some water on his pants while meeting in her office.
Bonham said he ran into Witt outside while waiting for an elevator, and Witt asked him: “Are you headed back, or did you forget your knee pads?”
“I kind of gave him a cross look, and he said it again,” Bonham said. “I thought: If you knew that I had seen these text messages, there’s no way that you would be making a joke to me that has sexual innuendo today.”
Bonham said he considered reporting Witt’s comments to Legislative Equity Officer Nate Monson, who handles workplace harassment claims, but decided against it. Instead, he ultimately told the story to Ryan.
“Why I thought it was important is it speaks to the willingness of a member to be inappropriate within the context,” Bonham said.
In Tuesday’s hearing, Ryan did not address the concerns from either lawmaker directly. But under questioning, she did suggest that Boshart Davis’s account would not have made it into her report because it was secondhand. Ryan said she tried to secure firsthand testimony about inappropriate conduct by Witt, but that she was unable.
“I do not rely on secondhand information in making my factual findings,” Ryan said. “Hearsay is not admissible in a court of law.”
When asked why she chose to include the testimony of witnesses who spoke favorably of Witt’s actions, Ryan said the three women had comparable relationships to Witt. She added she was “was satisfied that two of the three would not be driven by bias or loyalty to make the statements that they made to me.”
Ryan also did not discuss Bonham’s allegation. But the investigator did indicate she had become aware of another possible incident involving Witt that she did not believe constituted a pattern of harassment or amounted to a breach of legislative rules.