An Oregon House committee wound up largely deadlocked Friday as it took up consequences for a Democratic lawmaker who sent harassing texts.
Members of the House Conduct Committee all agreed Rep. Brad Witt should receive appropriate coaching or training after sending ambiguous texts to Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson in April. But the four-person committee, split equally between Democrats and Republicans, found itself unable to agree on what additional penalties Witt should receive.
Reps. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, and Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, favored asking the House to formally censure Witt, and also recommending that House Speaker Tina Kotek strip his assignments on legislative committees until the end of 2022, when his current term in office ends.
Democrats on the committee, Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene and Tawna Sanchez of Portland, favored a formal reprimand — slightly less severe than a censure — and recommending Kotek not give Witt a chairship in a committee through 2022.
But again and again, members of the two parties could not find a three-member majority for their proposals, leaving the committee only able to agree on an outcome all agreed was not enough.
“I don’t feel like coaching and training is a sufficient remedy in this case,” Fahey said.
Earlier in the week, the committee had found Witt, D-Clatskanie, violated workplace rules against sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment with a series of text messages to Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, on April 12.
On that date Breese Iverson texted Witt 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.”
Witt testified earlier this week that he had merely been seeking an informal setting where he and Breese Iverson could clear the air over difficulties in their working relationship. At the time, Witt served as chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and Breese Iverson was the vice chair.
“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,” Witt told the committee.
But Breese Iverson is adamant that Witt was seeking a quid pro quo with the texts: his vote in exchange for her spending time with him. She testified Tuesday that the exchange had left her badly shaken and unable to do her job.
The conduct committee ultimately believed both parties, finding that, while Witt had not intended to trade his vote for a date, the ambiguous texts had been harmful nonetheless. Based on that, the committee concluded Witt had violated legislative rules.
Democrats argued Friday that, while Witt’s lack of intent didn’t absolve him, it should be a factor in determining the severity of consequences.
“I frankly think that someone who isn’t aware of the fact that the statements in those texts could be interpreted in multiple ways, shouldn’t be in the position of power in this building,” said Fahey, arguing that Witt should lose his ability to chair a committee, a powerful role in the Capitol.
Republican members believed that would be too easy. Noble suggested that stripping Witt of any committee assignments through the rest of his current term as a lawmaker would still be a relatively light penalty, but that it would send a signal.
“At some point we need to send a message to knock it off,” said Noble, referring to a culture in the building that the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries concluded in 2018 had allowed harassment to fester.
Noble also submitted a document he suggested the committee vote on that would have formally recommended Witt “be formally censured and... admonished for engaging in disorderly and inappropriate workplace behavior” by the full House. Democrats disagreed.
Noble wound up abandoning his censure proposal, saying: “My intent would be to remove [Witt] from all committees, and I’m willing to forgo any type of censure or any other type of public type of messaging for an actual productive work environment.”
But again, Democrats balked.
“I do not believe that’s appropriate,” said Sanchez. “I think it’s just a tad too far.”
The committee adjourned without finding agreement on anything more than ordering Witt to receive training. Noble closed the meeting with a call for additional consequences.
“I don’t believe that any remedial measures are solely the purview of this committee so I would urge the body, the speaker, leadership, and whoever else may have any authority to use whatever discretion they have to ensure that there are appropriate remedial measures,” he said. “My hope is that that will occur.”