Oregon Congresswoman Val Hoyle takes stand to defend against allegations of racial bias

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
Aug. 3, 2023 12:51 a.m.

Former civil rights leader accuses agency charged with discrimination in Oregon’s workplace of racism.

Congresswoman Val Hoyle, the longtime Democratic politician who previously served as Oregon’s elected Labor Commissioner, took the stand in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Wednesday where she defended her treatment of the woman she hired to head the civil rights administration.

Hoyle hired Carol Johnson in 2019 to lead the civil rights administration at the Bureau of Labor & Industries, which is charged with addressing discrimination in Oregon’s workplaces. Johnson said she didn’t have to look far to find a racist workplace culture. Instead, she alleged, she found it at her own office.


Johnson said she was the target of harassment based on her race, skin color and gender while working at the Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Val Hoyle, second from right, declared victory in the race for Oregon's 4th Congressional District on Tuesday night. On Hoyle's right is Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Springfield Democrat who is retiring after 36 years in office.

Val Hoyle, second from right, declared victory in the race for Oregon's 4th Congressional District on Tuesday night. On Hoyle's right is Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Springfield Democrat who is retiring after 36 years in office.

Tiffany Eckert / KLCC

On the stand, Hoyle said she went out of her way to support Johnson. The former labor commissioner said she connected Johnson with other Black professionals who lived in Oregon so Johnson was aware from the start that Oregon could be a difficult place for Black people to work. She wanted to ensure Johnson had a community and a support system, Hoyle said. The congresswoman said she invited Johnson to her home for dinner in Springfield and sent her home with leftovers.

Most importantly, Hoyle said, she always believed Johnson and had her back while she was working as civil rights director.

“I was committed to her success,” Hoyle testified.

When Johnson decided to leave the agency, Hoyle sent an email to her staff titled “Carol Johnson’s resignation and racism in our workplace.”

“Carol is a nationally recognized expert, sought-after public speaker, accomplished attorney, and proven civil rights leader and advocate,” Hoyle emailed her staff. “She has done this work all over the country. And yet it was here in Oregon, in our own Civil Rights Division, where Carol had to experience abuse so severe that she didn’t feel safe.”

A couple of instances in Johnson’s tenure were talked about at the trial. At the time of Johnson’s hire, the staff at BOLI was primarily white. Johnson hired three Black investigators to work in the civil rights department. Other civil rights investigators within the agency complained anonymously that Johnson was engaged in “cronyism” due to the hires. But Johnson had reportedly no previous relationship with any of the new hires, the only common factor was their race.

Perhaps the most unsettling experience for Johnson was receiving a package of feces in the mail at her apartment, which was also done so anonymously. Johnson told BOLI leaders that she feared for her safety and believed the incident was racially motivated.


Johnson’s attorney, Diane Sykes, told the jury on Tuesday that her client raised concerns directly to then-Commissioner Hoyle and her deputy Duke Shepherd and at no point did “they communicate broad support … broadcast to their workforce that you need to take this woman’s lead, stop resisting, or support her in meaningful ways,” Sykes said.

The result, the attorney continued, was “what started out as a slow simmer turned into a seething boil of racial hostility towards Ms. Johnson.”

Johnson left the agency in early July of 2020, roughly one year after moving to Oregon.

In her testimony on Wednesday, Hoyle said after Johnson’s resignation, she started hearing more candid comments from Johnson’s former staffers. Hoyle said her opinion started to shift.

Attorneys representing BOLI argued Johnson was not the target of racism, but instead, she was simply a poor manager.

Jessica Spooner, the attorney, told the jury that over the course of the week, they would hear from a wide range of BOLI employees.

“Employees who are white and employees who are people of color, employees who consider themselves to be members of the LGBTQ community. Employees of different ages and generations … But one thing you’ll hear is these employees have one thing in common: their concern for Johnson as a boss,” Spooner said.

What was at issue, she said, was “bad management” and concern Johnson was a “downright bully.”

Hoyle said Johnson’s people skills were lacking. She recalled an instance at the beginning of the pandemic when Johnson said an employee yelled at her. The employee, who Hoyle described as “stellar,” was a young mom of three children who had recently had a newborn. Johnson apparently told the employee that she would not be able to work remotely at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the woman broke down sobbing.

“I was shocked at Ms. Johnson’s interpretation of her breaking down as being specific as yelling at her opposed to falling apart because she was in a desperate situation at a stressful time,” Hoyle testified.

An investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice looking into the allegations made by Johnson and another former Black employee’s allegations determined the claims were unsubstantiated.

Johnson’s attorney took issue with the report, calling it a sham that was designed to harm Johnson’s reputation.

After Johnson left Oregon, she moved to Austin, Texas, where she headed up Austin’s Office of Civil Rights until she resigned there after allegations of mistreating and retaliating against employees. Johnson claimed that the investigation in Oregon harmed her job prospects in Texas.

Johnson is seeking $17,000 in economic damages and $2.3 million in non-economic damages.