The former Oregon legislative official tasked with fielding sexual harassment complaints in the Capitol says he was pushed out after revealing a disturbingly lax process for dealing with harassment issues.
Now, former legislative equity officer Nate Monson is threatening to sue the Legislature and top lawmakers for retaliation, saying he’s prepared to reveal more about what he says are state leaders’ ineptitudes if they don’t settle before a suit is filed.
In a tort claim notice sent to top lawmakers and state officials Monday, Monson’s attorneys, Kim Sordyl and Michael Fuller, go into more detail about many of the troubling allegations Monson made in June, when he abruptly resigned from his role after just two months on the job, amid concerns he’d lied on his resume.
In a memo he wrote when he resigned June 15, Monson depicted a process for dealing with allegations of harassment and retaliation that was in utter disarray. His predecessor in the job, Jackie Sandmeyer, had failed to document and follow up on complaints and had allowed legal bills to languish to the point that investigations had to be paused, Monson said at the time.
“When I started, there were no case files, electronic documents, trainings scheduled, and bills that were unpaid resulting in investigations lasting on average 10 months over this past year,” Monson’s resignation letter said. “There were outstanding cases where individuals tried to file but heard nothing back. The severity of the situation means that justice is not being given to those who have come forward and may cost taxpayers millions in lawsuits from the liability of not having proper procedures, documentation, and oversight.”
The allegations were especially damning in light of the reckoning the Legislature had after a pattern of harassment by former Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse, was revealed in 2018. Since that behavior was exposed, top lawmakers were the subject of a complaint from the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries over their failure to stem improper behavior, and the Legislature ultimately settled for $1.1 million.
Lawmakers also established a new system for handling harassment allegations, and the legislative equity officer position held by Monson was a central piece. The office accepts complaints, kickstarts investigations by outside attorneys, and offers process counseling to help people who’ve been subjected to improper treatment understand their options. Under the old system, many of those duties had been handled by attorneys and human resources officials with close ties to lawmakers.
But Monson says the new process was deeply dysfunctional when he took over in April 2021. In a notice of a possible lawsuit sent to state officials Monday, his attorneys expand on many of his allegations, claiming that lawmakers and legislative employees knew the new Legislative Equity Office had been run improperly and had sought to keep that under wraps.
When Monson complained to the state’s top legislators, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, the letter says, “Kotek called Mr. Monson and told him that she knew there were many problems in the Equity Office, and kept saying ‘whatever you do, just fix it.’”
Courtney’s chief of staff, Anna Braun, said the dysfunction should be cleaned up “quietly,” according to Monson’s attorneys.
Asked about the claims, Kotek and Courtney’s offices issued a joint statement to OPB on Monday, saying Monson’s hiring and departure were the sole responsibility of lawmakers on Joint Conduct Committee.
“The Capitol should be a safe and welcoming environment for everyone,” the statement said. “We remain firmly committed to that fundamental goal and the ongoing work it requires. Because this is pending litigation, we cannot comment further.”
Kotek’s office has said previously that she was aware of some of the issues Monson raised, and that she supported efforts by the Joint Conduct Committee to “get to the bottom of any past problems.”
Monson’s letter also includes details and allegations that weren’t included in his June memo.
Among them is a claim that multiple harassment allegations against a current male lawmaker, who is not named in the filing, have gone unaddressed by legislative officials. According to Monson, Jessica Knieling, the Legislature’s interim human resources director, downplayed the allegations, “admitting her knowledge of the complaints while stating that she had already talked extensively to one of the complainants, without following the prescribed process.”
Knieling on Monday called Monson’s claims “false and inaccurate.”
“I trust the process will demonstrate I have at all times comported with my responsibilities under our rules and the law,” she wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, with pending litigation I am not able to comment further.”
Monson also accuses his direct supervisors in the role, the four lawmakers who chair the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Conduct, of brushing off his concerns, and of allowing the Legislature’s top lawyer, Dexter Johnson, to have an inappropriate role in advising the office on harassment matters he’s supposed to be severed from.
The committee co-chairs are Sens. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, along with Reps. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and Ron Noble, R-McMinnville. None of those lawmakers immediately responded to a request for comment.
Monson’s time at the Legislature ended under a cloud after legislative officials discovered that he’d misrepresented his work history on his resume and learned of concerns about mismanagement at his former job leading an Iowa nonprofit.
According to a memo released widely to news media, lawmakers and Capitol staff, those concerns came to light when a former colleague of Monson’s read that he’d been hired in Oregon, and called Knieling. That call led Knieling to scrutinize Monson’s application materials in a way that she apparently had not prior to his hiring.
As a result, the Joint Conduct Committee considered holding a public hearing to lay out the findings and consider next steps. Monson resigned instead.
The letter sent by his attorneys calls the investigation into Monson’s resume a “witch hunt” that was only pursued after he raised significant concerns about how the Legislature handles harassment.
“Mr. Monson was qualified to take over and repair the Legislative Equity Office’s processes and systems,” the letter says. “But obstacles like cover-ups, dishonesty, intentional foot-dragging and obfuscation from people as powerful as sitting senators, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the Employee Services Manager, the HR Director and the Legislative Counsel cannot be overcome by one new employee alone, without support or resources, regardless of experience.”
The notice says Monson is willing to settle his claims before filing a lawsuit “in hopes of resolving this matter with as little expense as possible to the taxpayers.” Confidential mediation toward a settlement would need to begin “within the next three weeks,” it says.
Since Monson resigned in June, the state has been without a legislative equity officer. Instead, lawmakers have been contracting with outside attorneys to handle and investigate any harassment or retaliation complaints that arise.