A screen capture of a video conference shows a grid with the faces of seven participants.

Nate Monson, bottom left, addresses lawmakers during a hearing in April 2021.

Screen capture / OPB

A former state official whose job it was to handle harassment complaints at the Oregon Capitol is suing lawmakers and other officials, saying he faced illegal retaliation after pointing out alarming lapses in accountability.

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Nate Monson resigned from his position as the Capitol’s legislative equity officer last June, after just two months in the post. The equity officer is a central piece of the Legislature’s new process for handling harassment issues; they are responsible for fielding complaints and guiding complainants through their options.

On his way out, Monson penned a damning memo that made waves in the Capitol that has become focused on workplace misconduct in recent years. He claimed the person who had preceded him in the job, Jackie Sandmeyer, ignored complaints, did not keep appropriate records, and slowed active investigations into accusations of harassment by failing to pay the outside attorneys who conduct those reviews.

“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 wrote in his resignation letter. “There were outstanding cases where individuals tried to file but heard nothing back.”

Lawmakers who oversee harassment complaints for the Legislature responded to Monson’s claims with their own set of accusations. They released a memo to the public showing that Monson had mischaracterized some elements of his resume when applying for the job, and suggesting he resigned in the face of assurances he would otherwise be fired over the inconsistencies.

Now, Monson says he was subjected to a witch hunt and inappropriate retaliation. He’s suing for unspecified damages to account for lost income and compensate him for emotional distress.

“Plaintiff was terminated and retaliated against in violation of Oregon’s whistleblower statutes in substantial part because he reported and opposed the legislature’s abdication of its legal and binding contractual obligations,” the lawsuit says. Monson is represented by Portland attorneys Kim Sordyl and Michael Fuller.

Named in the lawsuit are six legislators — Senate President Peter Courtney, former House Speaker Tina Kotek, and four lawmakers who have overseen the harassment complaint process — along with Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, and the Legislature’s top attorney and human resources director. All of those people either declined to comment on the suit Monday or did not respond to an inquiry.

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The lawsuit largely follows the outline of a notice of intent to sue that Monson filed with lawmakers in December. In that document, Monson repeated allegations that he inherited an office in utter disarray, and he said that harassment claims against at least one sitting lawmaker were largely ignored.

Monson’s suit contains more specifics. He claims, without offering details, that Sandmeyer failed to address a hostile workplace complaint against state Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, and “various complaints” against Courtney, D-Salem.

He also alleges that sexual harassment complaints staff members filed against Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, weren’t handled appropriately. The suit says that the Legislature’s top human resources official, Jessica Knieling, acknowledged to Monson that she knew about the complaints but did not follow the appropriate process for handling them.

Knieling did not respond to an inquiry about the lawsuit on Monday but in the past has said Monson’s claims are “false and inaccurate, and I trust the process will demonstrate I have at all times comported with my responsibilities under our rules and the law.”

Nosse told OPB he could not comment on the lawsuit at the advice of state attorneys, but said “the allegations made against me as described in this lawsuit are completely false and untrue.”

Harassment and other inappropriate workplace conduct have received heightened attention in Salem since 2018, when a pattern of harassment by former Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse came to light. After 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. The Legislature ultimately settled that complaint for more than $1 million.

But Monson’s lawsuit says that legislative officials — and Hoyle, a former state legislator who has since become labor commissioner — have not abided by the terms of that settlement. And when he began raising concerns about shortcomings within the process, he says, he was shunned and ultimately forced out.

“Our government leaders face no repercussions for illegally hiding workplace complaints and violations,” said Sordyl, Monson’s attorney. “Deceit among the administrative leadership team runs rampant while brave whistleblowers like Mr. Monson pay the price for speaking out.”

Lawmakers describe a different series of events. They have said that a former colleague of Monson’s from a job in Iowa reached out to Oregon legislative officials last year, after reading he’d been hired in Salem. According to Knieling, the woman explained that Monson had not held a job he’d listed on his resume and that he’d been fired from a nonprofit he helmed for more than a decade. Knieling also learned that Monson’s list of professional references was misleading.

The job of overseeing the equity officer position falls to a special legislative body, the Joint Conduct Committee. Chairs of the committee confronted Monson with Knieling’s findings, and he resigned.

Monson’s lawsuit suggests his resignation was the result of bullying by legislative officials, not the resume discrepancies. It says that Knieling “never consulted Monson for his reasonable response to what amounted to sordid gossip, and never allowed him to explain events and dispel her assumptions.”

In the wake of his departure, top lawmakers have vowed to investigate Monson’s claims about his predecessor. If they’ve done so, however, they have not released detailed public findings. The legislative equity officer position remains unfilled 10 months after Monson stepped down, and legislators are relying on expensive private attorneys to fulfill the obligations of the role.

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