As Tina Kotek’s bid for Oregon governor gains steam, a workplace complaint lingers

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
June 6, 2022 1 p.m. Updated: June 6, 2022 8:54 p.m.

The inquiry into claims by a former lawmaker that Kotek created a hostile work environment as House speaker has stretched for more than 16 months. It was supposed to be complete in three.

Tina Kotek and her wife, Aimee Wilson, speak to supporters at a Democratic primary victory party on May 17.

Tina Kotek and her wife, Aimee Wilson, speak to supporters at a Democratic primary victory party on May 17.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB


As Tina Kotek has mounted a boundary-breaking campaign to be Oregon’s next governor this year, accusations that she created a hostile work environment when she served as House speaker have quietly languished.

A complaint that Kotek threatened to kill legislation, demote lawmakers and end one former legislator’s political career as she sought support for a high-stakes bill has been under investigation for more than 16 months — far longer than the 84-day window in which legislative policy says such matters should be resolved.

The complaint, filed by former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, doesn’t contain many earth-shattering allegations. Hernandez, a Portland Democrat, has long claimed that Kotek vowed vengeance if he opposed a 2019 bill on pension benefits. He first said so publicly in 2020, after a group of women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, allegations that ultimately forced him from office.

But the document does show that Hernandez has been consistent in his account. He texted other lawmakers about being bullied by Kotek immediately after he says the threats occurred in May 2019.

Kotek has denied Hernandez’s accusations repeatedly and did so again last week.

Perhaps more notable than the specific complaint against Kotek, who won the Democratic primary for governor last month, is the length of time the matter has taken to conclude. An outside attorney — paid more than $350 an hour — has yet to release findings nearly 500 days after Hernandez filed the complaint. That’s far longer than any other investigation made public since lawmakers enacted a new policy on workplace conduct in 2019, and possibly ever.

The extended timeline raises fresh questions about whether the Legislature’s troubled process is grossly inadequate in helping complainants and the accused alike achieve timely resolution, and whether, as Hernandez believes, there are political reasons the document has been slow to emerge.

“I don’t know why it’s taken so long,” Kotek told OPB Friday. “It’s awkward to be having conversations about it now that I’m no longer Speaker.”

Melissa Healy, the Stoel Rives attorney who is conducting the investigation, did not respond to repeated requests to answer questions about the delay. She informed Hernandez on April 27 that she had recently completed “fact-finding” into the matter.

“At this point, however,” she wrote, “I do not have an expected date of completion.”

Hernandez has heard nothing since.

A fight over pensions

Hernandez’s allegations concern what many see as a watershed moment in Kotek’s nine-year stint as House Speaker.

On May 30, 2019, she pushed a politically dicey bill through the chamber that would trim pension benefits for public employees. The proposal was fiercely opposed by some of the unions that are major Democratic donors but was viewed by Kotek as necessary to secure billions of dollars in new school funding.

With Republicans against the measure and many Democrats leery of taking the vote, Kotek worked hard behind the scenes to find the 31 votes needed for passage. Hernandez was considered a necessary “yes,” since he represented a deep-blue East Portland district that Democrats had little fear of losing. Without his backing, a more vulnerable member would have to take the difficult vote instead.

But Hernandez refused to support the bill, even in the face of what he says was heavy pressure from Kotek.

He alleges that in two meetings on the day of the vote, Kotek threatened to kill his priority bills, said she would take away his role as a committee vice-chair, and told him: “I will make sure you lose your next election if you don’t change your mind.”

It’s not uncommon for political leaders to put pressure on colleagues in service of their goals. But in a statehouse that has been especially attuned in recent years to maintaining a respectful workplace, Hernandez argues Kotek crossed a line.

Hernandez has made similar allegations ever since harassment claims against him surfaced in May 2020, frequently suggesting he was being targeted because of his refusal to acquiesce. Kotek denies issuing threats and says Hernandez is attempting to deflect from his own mistakes.

“This complaint was filed after Diego Hernandez was under investigation for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment in the Capitol, which an independent investigation and a bipartisan committee of his peers found he did,” Kotek spokeswoman Katie Wertheimer said in a statement.

Wertheimer called the complaint “another example of his pattern of bullying and attempting to undermine anyone who tried to hold him accountable for his abusive behavior,” pointing out that Hernandez filed an unsuccessful lawsuit and sought to block consequences in the harassment case.

State Rep. Diego Hernandez is pictured on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, on the House floor in April 2019.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Despite Kotek’s stance, Hernandez’s complaint shows he was vocal about threats against him from the day of the 2019 pension vote — nearly a year before harassment complaints against him emerged. Screenshots of text messages with other lawmakers and lobbyists attached to the document suggest he was infuriated by what he says was Kotek’s pressure campaign.

For instance, Hernandez texted other lawmakers of color on the day of the vote that he planned to stop attending meetings with Democrats “because of all the threats I got and how I was treated by my leadership.”

That prompted a response from state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, who expressed concern that lawmakers of color might face pressure that others do not. “Are we as POC threatened differently than others,” she wrote, “or is it just a threatening system?”

In the days that followed, Hernandez also texted then-House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, about being “bullied, intimidated and harassed by my own speaker.” And he texted then-state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer: “I think out of all the messed up things the speaker said and did, the one that crossed the line is when she threatened to ruin my political career. That she’s going to make sure I [lose] my next election. She said this in rage.”

The complaint includes new claims, too, including that Kotek exerted pressure on two other lawmakers as she attempted to leverage Hernandez’s vote.

Hernandez says Kotek threatened to remove Williamson, one of her top lieutenants, as the head of the powerful House Judiciary Committee if Williamson could not convince Hernandez to fall in line.

“She just had Williamson tell me she’s [losing] her judiciary gavel because of me,” Hernandez texted a teacher’s union lobbyist prior to the vote. “She went up to me and cried.”

Kotek called the notion she threatened Williamson “absolutely untrue,” and the former speaker did not remove Williamson as judiciary chair after Hernandez voted against the bill. Williamson did not answer questions about the alleged interaction.

Hernandez’s complaint also offers up an eyewitness to another alleged threat.

He writes that as he was meeting with Kotek in a lawmaker lounge, state Sen. Dallas Heard came in to speak with Hernandez about a bill on landscape licensing the two were cosponsoring.

“Tina immediately yells at both Heard and me that she’s killing the bill out of spite for me not voting for PERS,” the complaint says.

Heard — a Republican from Myrtle Creek who has garnered recent controversy for refusing to follow masking rules in the Capitol — remembers the incident somewhat differently. He told OPB that when he walked into the room Kotek and Hernandez were engaged in a “heated discussion.”

“She was a bit hostile with me,” Heard said. “I just remember there was a power move I wasn’t used to. Basically, ‘Get your buddy in line or else your guys’ landscape bill doesn’t have a prayer.’”

Both Heard and Hernandez said Kotek later apologized for saying she’d kill the bill. It ultimately passed.

“I have a lot of admiration for Tina Kotek,” Heard said. “She’s very talented, very passionate, very intelligent. But she’s a scary individual.”

Kotek’s spokeswoman on Friday called the incident a “potential miscommunication.”

Hernandez’s complaint says he never got an apology for more-personal threats by Kotek. He wrote that the entire affair left him “down and depressed for weeks,” and amounted to a hostile work environment.

Under the legislature’s conduct rules, a person can create a hostile workplace “by engaging in behavior that is unwelcome and is so severe or pervasive that it either affects a person’s ability to function in the workplace or denies a person the benefits of the workplace.”

Kotek acknowledges having hard conversations with Hernandez but flatly denies that she went to the lengths he describes.

“I was upset with him when he wasn’t interested in taking a vote to get the bill done,” she said. “I made that clear. I was really direct with him.”


Tough, or too tough?

The claims about Kotek’s forceful style add nuance to both her sales pitch to voters this year and her detractors’ complaints.

Kotek bills herself as a capable, dedicated and caring politician who has long experience muscling difficult bills through to passage. She says she will bring a stern hand to an executive branch she strongly suggests has been allowed to run sloppily by Gov. Kate Brown.

Critics, including some in her own party, say Kotek grew comfortable throwing around her considerable power as House Speaker. They complain she is willing to do anything necessary — including go back on her word — to achieve her policy wins.

Kotek’s supporters brush aside criticisms that she was too forceful, often suggesting there’s an element of sexism to the claims. Others say issuing threats is not part of Kotek’s playbook.

Keny-Guyer, who served under Kotek’s leadership during more than eight years in the House, said recently she’d never seen the kind of behavior Hernandez alleges.

“With my own experience, she never threatened,” Keny-Guyer said, saying Kotek instead used “reason” to convince her. “She never threatened my career and, likewise, she never said ‘If you do this, I’ll get you a bridge in your district.’”

But Keny-Guyer was also among the lawmakers Hernandez texted in 2019 to complain about threats by Kotek. She responded by offering support.

“That’s outrageous,” Keny-Guyer wrote. “I want to hear more about how it happened and what I can do about it. Won’t do anything until checking with you, of course. Has she apologized???”

In an interview with OPB, Keny-Guyer said if Hernandez’s allegations are true she does believe they are outrageous, but she clarified she did not know what happened, adding Kotek is her friend and she’s supporting her for governor. Keny-Guyer said she recalled Kotek telling her at the time that Hernandez’s story was not fully accurate.

What role the investigation into Hernandez’s complaint might play in those competing narratives remains to be seen. Under legislative rules, the matter must come before a House committee for a hearing once a report is complete.

Records show that Hernandez filed the complaint on Jan. 25, 2021 — the same day an unflattering investigation into his interactions with former romantic partners was released.

Following a week of hearings on that report, the House Conduct Committee determined in February 2021 that Hernandez had created a hostile work environment for the three women, all of whom worked at the state Capitol or had jobs that required interacting with the state Legislature. The committee found that Hernandez used his position as a lawmaker to pressure one woman to continue a relationship with him, threatened the career of another, and engaged in controlling or abusive behavior.

Hernandez disputes most of those characterizations and has long contended the case against him was organized by Kotek as political retribution. But lengthy testimony from his former romantic partners convinced lawmakers that there was an unsettling pattern in Hernandez’s relationships that had extended into the Capitol.

While its members expressed mixed feelings, the bipartisan House Conduct Committee voted unanimously to begin the process of potentially expelling Hernandez from the Legislature. Hernandez first sought to block an expulsion vote in court. When that failed, he resigned.

Hernandez’s Feb. 21, 2021 announcement said he was stepping down “so my colleagues may focus on serving Oregonians and so I can move forward with my life and focus on my health and family.”

The former lawmaker says he’s been doing just that, and is trying to put his four-year stint in the Capitol behind him. But he does want a legislative hearing into his complaint against Kotek.

“I have to be able to tell my story, even in the midst of people dismissing me,” Hernandez said. “They can believe whatever they want.”

The investigation drags

By the standard of most legislative investigations, the harassment case against Hernandez took a long time to conclude: about eight months.

His complaint against Kotek has already taken twice as long.

Capitol rules say investigations into such complaints “must be completed within 84 days from the date the complaint is made” absent some compelling reason — a timeline recommended to lawmakers by a workgroup convened by the Oregon Law Commission.

That target is hardly sacrosanct. Harassment and hostile workplace complaints filed against lawmakers cases have breezed past that goal with relative frequency.

But the length of time Healy, the attorney investigating the complaint, has taken to complete her work makes the case an extreme outlier. It’s far longer than any other investigation into lawmaker conduct made public in at least a decade.

One example: In 2018, a wrenching and wide-ranging investigation into sexual harassment by former state Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, shook the Capitol and set the stage for many of the Legislature’s current harassment policies. It took fewer than three months.

Hernandez said he’s gotten only scant communication from Healy, despite asking when the matter might conclude. (Editor’s note: Healy has performed legal work for OPB.)

Hernandez also has at times worried his complaint could be buried as Kotek runs for governor. To ensure that doesn’t happen, he recently contacted state Rep. Daniel Bonham, a Republican from The Dalles and co-chair of the House Conduct Committee that will take up the report once it’s finished.

Bonham told OPB he doesn’t know the details of the complaint. But he asked investigators about timing on Hernandez’s behalf.

“The only thing that was said to me was that they were having a hard time tracking down some people who were part of the process,” he said.

Some of those mentioned in the complaint, including Keny-Guyer, Rep. Rachel Prusak, and teachers’ lobbyist Louis De Sitter, told OPB they had not been contacted by an investigator. But others have. Both Heard and state Rep. Janelle Bynum said they were interviewed months ago. And Kotek met with an investigator “as soon as she was approached last year,” her spokeswoman said.

Bonham has seen no indication the investigation has been sandbagged for political reasons. He worries that might be, at minimum, the public’s perception.

“The whole idea of Rule 27 is that we can hold people accountable, not that we use it as a political football,” he said, referring to the Legislature’s rule on harassment and retaliation.

Kotek’s campaign said she’s also not happy with how long the matter has dragged on.

“Tina’s only role in the process was to respond to the investigator’s questions,” said Wertheimer, the campaign spokeswoman. “Tina has no influence over the Legislative Equity Office or the independent investigation process and is eager for this matter to be resolved.”

Under legislative rules, a completed report must go to the House Conduct Committee, which will consider whether Kotek created a hostile work environment. That exercise is likely to be more academic than anything. Now that Kotek has stepped down, the Legislature’s ability to penalize her is severely limited even if lawmakers do find she broke workplace rules.

What’s more, members of the House Conduct Committee will have their own tangle of competing political interests.

The committee is equally composed of Republicans and Democrats, but its Democratic co-chair, Sanchez, appears in Hernandez’s complaint as a potential witness. And every Democrat on the committee, including Sanchez, has endorsed Kotek’s gubernatorial bid.

Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping Kotek doesn’t win the governor’s office this year. Nearly all have endorsed the GOP candidate in the race, former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan.

As it happens, Bonham, the Republican co-chair of the Conduct Committee, filed a complaint of his own against Kotek in the past.

In 2021, Bonham says, Kotek swore at him as she ordered him out of her office. The exchange happened during a particularly heated period, as Republicans were using delay tactics to slow legislative action to a crawl.

“I don’t remember her language,” Bonham said recently. “I just remember that it was foul.”

Kotek told OPB that the incident in question occurred at a time when she wasn’t even allowing close allies into her office because of Capitol COVID protocols. She was dismayed, she said, when she asked Drazan to a meeting and Bonham and a Republican staffer showed up as well.

“I know I raised my voice,” Kotek said. “They weren’t following protocol. They shouldn’t have been in my office.”

Bonham reported the incident to legislative officials, he said, in order to make sure it was on record.

Nothing came of the 2021 complaint until this April, when Sarah Ryan, another private attorney who handles workplace complaints for the Legislature, arranged a call between the two so that Kotek could apologize.

“An apology was made,” Bonham said. “With all sorts of caveats.”

OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this story.