Politics

Oregon legislative committee takes up long-delayed complaint about Tina Kotek

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Oct. 20, 2022 12:16 a.m.

An investigation suggested Kotek did nothing wrong while pressuring a lawmaker in 2019. Some say she crossed the line as House speaker.

Tina Kotek’s leadership style while she served as House speaker came under fire on Wednesday, as a legislative panel considered a long-delayed workplace complaint against the Democratic candidate for governor.

In an hours-long hearing, two former state representatives and a sitting state senator shared personal accounts of Kotek threatening to kill bills and other political retribution as she sought to pass priority legislation as speaker. Former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, who lodged the hostile workplace complaint that prompted the hearing, said he slipped into depression after a heated conversation in which he said Kotek threatened to end his political career if he would not vote as she wanted.

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“I felt crushed,” Hernandez said. “I felt traumatized.”

Candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor Tina Kotek speaks to her supporters at an election night party at Revolution Hall on May 17, 2022 in Portland, Ore.

Candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor Tina Kotek speaks to her supporters at an election night party at Revolution Hall on May 17, 2022 in Portland, Ore.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

At the same time, an employment attorney who investigated Hernandez’s complaints told lawmakers that, while she found Hernandez’s account credible, the arm-twisting he’s alleged does not run afoul of the Legislature’s workplace rules.

“This kind of conversation could hypothetically be inappropriate in another workplace,” said Melissa Healy, an attorney with the Portland firm Stoel Rives. “But this is the Legislature, and it is not an ordinary workplace.”

Kotek did not appear at the hearing. While she has acknowledged pressuring Hernandez on the vote, she has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Earlier this month Kotek said she welcomed Healy’s conclusions into the matter, writing to lawmakers: “This report is long overdue, but I’m satisfied by the clear conclusion that these were baseless accusations.”

Whether or not lawmakers agree will have to wait for another day. The House Conduct Committee, responsible for taking up such complaints, adjourned without making a formal finding about whether Kotek had violated any rules. The committee – equally comprised of Democrats and Republicans with sharply different stances on Kotek’s gubernatorial bid – planned to set a date in the near future to make a determination.

Regardless of their conclusion, the Legislature’s process for dealing with workplace complaints about harassment, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment appears due for a change.

Every person who testified at Wednesday’s hearing spoke of major flaws in the policy, known as Rule 27 within the Capitol. Many argued the process could be gamed for political purposes or bent to the aims of people with more power in the Legislature. Created in the wake of a 2018 harassment scandal, Rule 27 is widely considered within the Capitol to be a flop in need of major reform.

Hernandez’s complaint dates back to May 2019, when Kotek was attempting to pass a bill curbing public pension benefits to achieve savings. Hernandez and other Democrats were uncomfortable with the measure, Senate Bill 1049, which was opposed by unions. Some in the party, including Hernandez, refused to support it.

In his complaint, Hernandez said that Kotek’s attempts to influence him crossed the line. He said that she vowed to oppose his future runs for office and to kill or hamper priority legislation — including a bill supplying driver cards to undocumented residents — if he would not fall in line.

“I was living under constant fear,” Hernandez said on Wednesday. “She used the thing I cared about the most, my community, to try and force me to do something I didn’t want to do.”

Kotek’s campaign suggested to OPB that Hernandez’s complaint was an attempt at misdirection. A spokeswoman pointed out he lodged it only after he was facing accusations of harassment by former romantic partners beginning in 2020.

But Hernandez had made his displeasure with Kotek known well before. As OPB first reported in June, Hernandez furnished investigators with a wealth of text messages to other lawmakers from 2019, complaining about his interaction with Kotek and the toll it had taken on him.

Hernandez’s complaint also suggested an eyewitness: Republican State Sen. Dallas Heard, R- Myrtle Creek, who has told OPB that he witnessed Kotek and Hernandez having a heated discussion. Heard also said that Kotek even threatened to kill one of his bills over Hernandez’s vote, which she has acknowledged and apologized for soon after.

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Heard recounted the interaction at Wednesday’s hearing.

“As I came into the hallway, I saw the speaker being very loud, very intimidating, very close to the former representative, and the former representative was just taking it because what else are you going to do?” Heard said.

State Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, who resigned from the Legislature last year, also appeared at the hearing to testify that Kotek had killed three of his bills in 2013, after he opposed legislation she favored. The experience was “not brutal,” Clem said, but he testified to witnessing the mental health toll that threats took on Hernandez.

Clem also likened Hernandez’s complaint to one filed last year by state Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson, R-Prineville, who said she’d gotten harassing texts from another lawmaker, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie. The Conduct Committee ultimately found that Witt had not intended to harass his colleague, but that she’d been harmed by the messages nonetheless.

“I think you can see some pretty serious impact on Diego,” Clem said. “This applies to Tina as well. If your friend and your ally did something wrong, you still have to hold them accountable, even if you love them.”

Clem and others also pushed back against Healy’s conclusion that the Legislature should operate under different rules of conduct than other workplaces.

“It is not acceptable that rule 27 does not cover legislators if they are treated in a toxic, bullying manner,” he said. “They are humans, too. You are humans, too.”

While Clem was interviewed as part of the investigation, some potential witnesses named in Hernandez’s complaint were not. That included former state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, whom Hernandez has said Kotek threatened to pull from an influential role if she did not convince him to vote differently.

Kotek has denied she made any such threat, and Williamson has not responded to questions about whether Hernandez’s claim is accurate. Williamson retained her role as the chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee even after Hernandez opposed the bill.

“I determined that it was not necessary to interview those individuals for several reasons, including that they did not witness the interaction between Hernandez and Kotek and because there is no reason to question the emotional impact that the conversation had on Hernandez,” Healy wrote in her report.

Healy also failed to mention at least one witness who said she was contacted by investigators. State Rep. Janelle Bynum told OPB earlier this year she participated in the investigation, but her name was not listed among five witnesses in the investigatory report.

“If for some reason that information was lost or omitted, I feel comfortable asserting that our system has failed us,” Bynum wrote to lawmakers ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. The Happy Valley Democrat previously considered challenging Kotek for the House speakership and has said Kotek broke a deal to back Bynum for the role in a subsequent run.

In the same letter, Bynum took issue with the surprising length of time it took Hernandez’s complaint to get a hearing.

Hernandez first complained in January 2021; legislative rules suggest such complaints should be investigated within 84 days, but Healy took more than 600 days to produce a report. She said on Wednesday that part of the delay was caused by her inability to reach her five witnesses and pushed back on speculation that the report was sandbagged to avoid damaging Kotek’s reputation while she ran for governor.

“Work was never started or stopped in this matter due to the election cycle or any other outside influence,” she said.

Healy also suggested that 84 days was not sufficient to complete an investigation. While Rule 27 investigations have often taken longer than that, none has dragged on remotely as long as Hernandez’s.

Bynum joined others in calling for reforms to the system, suggesting she did not believe the stated reasons for the tardy report.

“We are lawmakers who live in this state and serve consistently. We are not hard to find, nor impossible to schedule,” she wrote. “I also do not know how much we have paid for this case, but I question if we have gotten a fair value for the people’s tax dollars. As the past chair of the House Judiciary Committee, I believe surely there is a better way to administer justice.”

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