politics

Workplace Dispute Reveals Big Flaws In Oregon Capitol's Harassment Policy

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
July 13, 2020 5 p.m.

In 2019, as Oregon legislators grappled with explosive sexual harassment allegations in their own ranks, they sought to make things right.

Revelations that a state senator had groped and harassed colleagues and staff for years without consequences had just rocked the Capitol. So lawmakers decided to write stronger rules for handling such behavior.

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But one early test suggests those fixes have introduced flaws to the system, with potentially damaging outcomes for victims of harassment.

Laura Hanson sits on the floor of the Oregon Senate in June 2019.

Laura Hanson sits on the floor of the Oregon Senate in June 2019.

Logan Gilles

In January, a Capitol staffer named Laura Hanson was bewildered to learn she’d be pulled into the new system for addressing abuse after she told her boss, state Sen. Sara Gelser, that their working relationship had become toxic and untenable.

What began as an airing of office grievances has since spiraled into a full-blown investigation under the Capitol’s new harassment policies. As part of that process, the issues Hanson raised will — against her wishes — go public.

The situation has ramifications far beyond Hanson's complaint, calling into question how much control people have when they experience abusive behavior at the Capitol.

It suggests that victims’ concerns for privacy — or the impact public disclosure might have on their careers — could be a casualty of the Legislature’s efforts to better address problematic or inappropriate behavior.

For Hanson, the situation has been traumatizing, subjecting her to inquiries from an investigator she believes were hostile, and possibly dashing her hopes to continue working within the Capitol. While she never wanted her grievances made public, Hanson spoke at length with OPB because she worried the Legislative process will ultimately hijack her story.

If she doesn’t speak out, she fears, others will be put through the same flawed process.

“I feel an immense amount of obligation for other survivors in the building and for other people in the building,” she said. “I just don't feel like I can move on with my life and just let them handle this how they're gonna handle it.”

A 'toxic' text exchange

On Dec. 30, 2019, Hanson and Gelser were having issues.

A town hall meeting Gelser was planning to host had been entered into her calendar on the wrong date, causing confusion when she improperly advertised the event.

In a long string of text messages, Gelser and Hanson went back and forth about how the mix-up occurred. Hanson, the senator’s chief of staff, said she would fix the matter. Gelser, a Corvallis Democrat, was cordial but unrestrained in conveying disappointment.

“All of these things impact not just my ability to do my job, but eat up a ton of my time,” she wrote. “Let’s talk next week in person about how to support that and expectations moving forward. There are so many consistent errors and that is not sustainable.”

For Hanson, who says she was exhausted from her boss’s fast-changing expectations, the exchange became a last straw. In a lengthy message, she gave Gelser notice that she would be seeking new employment.

"I can't be successful professionally in such an emotionally toxic and abusive environment," Hanson wrote in the text exchange, adding that she believes Gelser's much-publicized work in support of foster children and harassment victims make her an "incredible" lawmaker. "But you can't treat your staff like this. I firmly believe that if you saw another staffer being treated this way, you would burn down the Capitol in their defense. You're going to continue to lose staff if you don't change how you treat them moving forward."

The message was passionate, but meant to be a private conversation between employee and employer. In the months since, it has morphed into much more than either Hanson or Gelser imagined.

On July 15, a Senate committee will hold a hearing on a report that, though it redacts her name, would leave little doubt to a knowledgeable observer that Hanson had raised complaints about her boss. The report holds Gelser blameless under the state's new harassment rules. Hanson fears it will be a death knell for her professional future.

“I think this makes the Capitol a more dangerous place, to be perfectly honest,” Hanson said earlier this year. “People are going to be scared to come forward.”

The new rules

In October 2017, a former state senator named Jeff Kruse spurred a crisis of conscience in the Legislature over how Oregon’s legislative branch handles harassment.

Kruse, a Roseburg Republican, became the subject of scandal after Gelser publicly accused him of groping her. Eventually, other lawmakers, lobbyists and Capitol staffers came forward with their own stories about Kruse's inappropriate conduct.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Kruse at the Capitol in 2013.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Kruse at the Capitol in 2013.

PortlandCorps/Flickr

The scrutiny spurred two investigations, and prompted the senator's eventual resignation. The state's Bureau of Labor and Industries concluded that legislative leaders had been remiss in addressing harassment by Kruse and others over the years, effectively allowing the Capitol to become a hostile work environment.

The Legislature wound up paying out more than $1 million to victims of harassment, and resolved to bolster its policies. The goal: to better hold people accountable for bad behavior, while creating new paths for victims to resolve troubling situations.

What emerged was an update to what’s known as Rule 27, the Legislature’s personnel rule for addressing harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

The rule provides a complicated road map for how such behavior is handled, whether it’s perpetrated by a lawmaker, staffer, lobbyist or member of the public. And in its updated form, the rule provides three options someone who suffers harassment might take.

The most strict is a formal conduct complaint, which requires, among other things, that complainants sign a statement under penalty of perjury, affirming what they’re saying is true. Once filed, conduct complaints always trigger an investigation by an “independent investigator” — an outside attorney contracted by the legislative branch.

One step down is what’s known as a “conduct report.” These are something of a catch-all in the Legislature’s new system. Not only can they be filed by harassment victims, but they are required to be filed by supervisors in the building if they observe or are told about prohibited behavior. Independent investigators analyze these reports, and begin investigations if they appear to describe violations of the Legislature’s harassment or discrimination policies.

The last step is a “confidential disclosure process,” which is routed through a brand new office created by lawmakers, the Legislative Equity Office. The office is theoretically independent. Among its duties, it helps victims who file confidential disclosures to address their issues quietly, while their identities are protected.

The Legislative Equity Office, or LEO, was a central innovation when lawmakers overhauled Rule 27 last year. It was meant to give victims a place to bring their concerns that was not the Legislature's human resources or legislative counsel's office, two entities that work closely with lawmakers and saw extensive criticism for their handling of allegations against Kruse.

But despite that innovation, Rule 27 appears to tilt heavily toward non-confidentiality.

Victims of harassment or other behavior have the option to begin a confidential process, if they’re the ones reporting questionable conduct. But if their supervisors hear about or witness harassment, they don’t have a similar choice. Those supervisors must report the behavior as a conduct report.

In such cases, victims of harassment have no say in whether an investigation and public report move forward — even if they would prefer to address the situation quietly.

As lawmakers considered this system last year, in fact, Hanson offered testimony that today seems prescient.

Hanson, who is a survivor of sexual assault while she was a student at University of Oregon, told lawmakers of the inefficient and ultimately harmful process university officials put her through once made aware of her rape. She described being forced to recount the incident again and again, though the institution’s overwrought process ultimately did nothing to address her concerns or hold the man she says raped her accountable.

“I am concerned that what you are proposing in these bills is adding layers of bureaucracy and hoops for victims and survivors to jump through when they have already been abused or harassed,” Hanson testified in February 2019. “In my experience those hoops were more harmful than the initial trauma.”

A year later, Hanson is caught in the very system she warned about.

'Frankly, it took my breath away'

In light of the Legislature’s new rules, Gelser says Hanson’s text gave her no choice but to immediately report the matter to human resources. She also says she would have done so even if it wasn’t required.

“If I can do better, I want to learn how to do better,” Gelser said. “If I've done something wrong, I want to be held accountable for that.” She says she had no idea how involved the matter would become.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

For Hanson, the message was intended to be a measured response to an ongoing personality conflict — the type of thing that plays out in countless workplaces.

Instead it has taken on a life of its own, upending Hanson’s life in the process.

“Going through this process is worse than whatever treatment I allegedly experienced,” said Hanson, who has at times grown despondent trying to navigate the system while wrestling with worries the incident will earn her a reputation as a problem employee.

Just one day after she texted Gelser, Hanson was on the phone with human resources about next steps. She was also told she’d be speaking with an independent investigator, Brenda Baumgart of the law firm Stoel Rives.

Hanson was also put on paid leave, severing her from her job and friends in the Capitol and losing access to her work phone and email account. She remains on leave as the investigation plays out.

“I would like to reiterate that I did not send Senator Gelser that text because I wanted to start an investigation or get her into any kind of trouble, or even involve HR,” Hanson wrote to Jessica Knieling, the Legislature’s HR director, in a Dec. 31 email. “I was simply giving her feedback as her employee.”

Gelser, who perhaps more than any other lawmaker spurred the Capitol to reform its harassment policies, agrees that the situation has revealed flaws. The senator had sought help from human resources both to address her own concerns with Hanson’s work and Hanson’s allegations of a toxic environment, but she didn’t expect it to proceed to a full-blown committee hearing.

“Frankly, it took my breath away that I was going to get contacted by this investigator,” Gelser told OPB in February. “If [victims] want a hearing, they should be able to go to the hearing. Period. But if they want to … resolve a situation without going to a hearing at the end, there has to be a way to do that with an off-ramp.”

One allegation by Hanson, more than any other, dictated the direction the case has gone.

In a conversation with the human resources director, she explained that she felt Gelser had retaliated against her when she needed to take medical leave — once in October 2019, when she suffered a concussion, and again in December, when she asked for time off for her own mental health. Such leave is protected under law, and specifically called out as protected in Rule 27.

It had never occurred to Hanson that her boss might have violated Capitol policy based on the requests for time off. But after Knieling brought up that provision of the rule, Hanson says she began to think more seriously about it. She concluded that Gelser had begun to treat her more harshly after she requested the medical leave.

“Having taken some time to reflect on what happened, I am concerned now that some of  what I experienced was retaliation,” Hanson wrote Knieling on Jan. 2.

Once Hanson had made such a claim, Rule 27 kicked in.

A series of red flags

Gelser flatly denies any suggestion she tried to discourage Hanson from taking time away, and the investigation that ensued found no evidence the senator had acted inappropriately.

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In fact, the document that came out of interviews with both Gelser and Hanson — along with scrutiny of a wide range of written exchanges between the two — concluded that Gelser had been supportive of Hanson’s desire to take leave.

“There is nothing substantiated in the record that would rise to the level of inappropriate workplace conduct on the part of Sen. Gelser, particularly conduct that needs to be remedied by training, coaching, or some other measure,” the report concludes. As such, it's unlikely Gelser’s fellow senators will order any further action in the case when they take up the report July 15.

But those same senators have real reason to be concerned about the process that mandated such a report in the first place. Hanson’s experience with Capitol officials raises a series of red flags over how the Legislature is working with potential victims of harassment or retaliation.

Visitors walk around the Capitol rotunda at the statehouse in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Visitors walk around the Capitol rotunda at the statehouse in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Hanson says Knieling told her that she was required to participate in the investigation into Gelser’s conduct, and that her case could remain confidential.

Under Rule 27, neither is true, but it wasn’t until late January, nearly a month after she raised issues with Gelser, that Hanson says anyone made that clear to her.

“The fact that she has the option not to participate is completely news to us, and is not what [Knieling] told her when she first learned that an investigation would be undertaken,” Jennifer Middleton, an attorney Hanson tapped to help her navigate the process, wrote to the Legislature’s new equity officer on Jan 29. “To the contrary, she was told that she was expected to meet with the investigator and to provide any relevant information.”

Knieling told OPB she made no such statement.

More concerning to Hanson was the revelation that, under Rule 27, her complaints to her boss would be aired publicly — a provision designed to help ensure lawmakers are held accountable for their actions. Under the rule, a report detailing the investigation must go before the Senate Conduct Committee.

Hanson, 28, says that raises concerns for victims who might never wish for incidents of harassment or retaliation to become public, and who worry they will suffer negative stigma as a result. She notes that many legislative staffers are young, with limited experience.

“You've never had a job before, you don't know how these places work and all of a sudden you're being harassed by your boss or a legislator gropes you in the hallway?” she said. “If your choices are to put up with it or to make a big fuss, no one's gonna [report it].”

That sentiment is shared by plenty of observers and experts, including an advisory work group that drafted recommendations Legislature's new harassment rules.

“Given the power differential in the State Capitol, and the fears of those with little power, many complaints go unreported,” those recommendations said. “One significant way to increase reporting is to provide a confidential avenue.”

Hanson is not the first person to feel misled by the Legislature’s process for addressing harassment.

In late 2018, two former interns for Kruse, the disgraced senator, said they'd been told by a lawyer for the Legislature that they had no standing to file a complaint against him, even though that wasn't the case. They did not learn that wasn't true, they said, until after the window for them to complain had closed.

Hanson has also raised concerns about her interactions with Baumgart, the outside investigator who has a contract with the Legislature.

In interviews, Hanson believes Baumgart has played the role of interrogator — more opposing counsel than impartial fact-finder. Among her actions, Hanson said, Baumgart confronted her with past text messages to Gelser in which she’d praised her boss.

“She was reading them back to me like, ‘How do you explain this?’” Hanson said. “I had to explain the cycle of abuse to her.”

Baumgart also pulled out a Christmas card Hanson had given Gelser in 2019 as evidence. When Hanson asked to take a picture of the card, she says Baumgart refused to allow it.

“She was suggesting that I was basically lawsuit hunting,” Hanson said.

Asked about her process, Baumgart would not address specifics.

“A necessary aspect of a thorough investigation involves asking witnesses about information and evidence that has been received for the purposes of allowing them an opportunity to respond and in an effort to obtain the best and most complete information possible,” she wrote in an email. (Full disclosure: Baumgart has done legal work for OPB in the past.)

Other employment attorneys share that philosophy. Still, Hanson’s not the first person to raise concerns about contract investigators under the new Rule 27 process.

In early January, a woman named Juliya Gudev wrote to lawmakers to share similar objections about a separate investigator, Melissa Healey. Gudev, who reported conduct by Rep. Brad Witt she considered rude, said that Healey had been oppositional and not open to evidence she offered.

“I did not at any time feel that her role was to impartially investigate and make a determination about what happened,” Gudev wrote.

Healey ultimately concluded that Gudev’s assertion that Witt had violated the personnel rule was not substantiated. Lawmakers cleared him of wrongdoing.

Unintended consequences

People intimately involved in crafting the Legislature’s new harassment rules agree Hanson’s experience raises concerns about unintended outcomes.

P.K. Runkles-Pearson, a Portland lawyer who helped draft recommendations for new harassment policies as part of the Oregon Law Commission, said her group had never even considered an instance when a party would report their own alleged conduct, as Gelser did.

The group was far more explicit when it came to attempting to shield a victim's experience.

“One thing I do know we talked about quite a bit was how important it was to be able to keep victim names confidential if that’s what they decided,” Runkles-Pearson said. “We discussed the fact a victim ought to have agency over when and how that happens.”

Lawmakers wound up accepting nearly all of the work group’s recommendations when finalizing Rule 27. Even if they had been adopted in full, however, it appears that Hanson’s case would have proceeded along essentially the same path.

“I don’t think it was ever our intention, unless the conduct was extremely severe … that someone inadvertently be dragged into something when they did not want to come forward,” Runkles-Pearson said.

Meredith Holley, an attorney who handles workplace issues and who is representing Hanson, argues such unintended consequences are commonplace when employers look to crack down on harassment. They wind up with policies that are too rigid.

“Now what’s happened is, in order to resolve that, there have been blanket interpretations and applications of mandatory reporting that really swing to the other side,” Holley said. “What you see with the [investigatory] report is exactly the problem. In just her talking about a work environment issue, now the report looks like a disciplinary memo about Laura when that was never even the question.”

For her part, Gelser believes that the investigation into her conduct is an unintended consequence that could be addressed with a number of tweaks.

“It really wasn't until about two weeks ago that I understood this whole process,” the senator said Feb. 13.

Now that she's more familiar with the policy, Gelser says the Legislature’s rules could be amended so that, once an investigation is complete, those involved would have a say on whether it becomes public.

“If nobody wants to move forward, it shouldn't ever have to go into a [public] record,” she said. “The control should always, always rest with the individual. That's what we tried to create and I don't think that we had imagined this scenario.”

Gelser plans to send members of the conduct committee a list of potential rule changes.

Other lawmakers agree that the new policy has serious shortcomings.

Before the 2020 legislative session was derailed by a Republican walkout, a joint committee was working on a series of amendments to the new Rule 27 — many of them with direct applicability to Hanson’s case.

Under one change, mandatory reporters such as Gelser would not be required to relay concerns to human resources if they themselves were the source of questionable conduct.

Under another, an “impacted party” such as Hanson would have the power to end an investigation if they did not want it to proceed. Hanson’s attempts to do this have been unsuccessful under the current rule.

“What I think some of us have been looking at [is] whether you're going to force or mandate somebody into the public light,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, a co-chair of the Joint Conduct Committee, which considered the changes. “That could have an extreme adverse impact on them not only then but going into the future. Clearly that could be re-victimizing that individual.”

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, reads a bill proposal on the Senate floor Feb. 11, 2020, in Salem, Oregon.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, reads a bill proposal on the Senate floor Feb. 11, 2020, in Salem, Oregon.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

The proposed amendments also would have taken significant power away from the outside investigators like Baumgart, placing them instead with the legislative equity officer.

At one Conduct Committee hearing this year, lawmakers repeatedly suggested that Hanson’s is far from the only ongoing Rule 27 investigation.

"We know that there are quite a few things that are happening right now," Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, said at the time. (In May, after those remarks, it was revealed that seven women had accused state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, of harassment.)

But lawmakers could do little but talk at the hearing. The committee is the rare legislative body split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. With House and Senate Republicans boycotting the Legislature over climate change legislation, the committee couldn’t muster the majority quorum needed to adopt amendments or move the resolution on.

“We want to get this work done as quickly as possible,” Prozanski said in early March. “We are in the situation that without getting this completed we have a significant void for our staff and anyone in the building.”

The Legislature adjourned March 8 having passed just three bills due to the legislative standoff. The Rule 27 amendments never got a single vote.

The changes were not part of a slate of bills lawmakers considered at a special session convened June 24.

'A second chance'

Hanson never wanted Gelser to be disciplined for the concerns she raised, though she still believes she was treated unfairly for taking medical leave. Again and again, Hanson told officials that she just hoped to — quietly, confidentially — address a working relationship that had become untenable.

Instead, when the Senate Conduct Committee meets to take up a detailed report on her allegations, Hanson plans to testify.

She feels compelled, she says, to defend herself, to tell the committee how deeply she disagrees with the conclusions the investigator reached.

There’s more, too. Hanson’s biggest regret in life is a sense that she never held the University of Oregon to account for how it mishandled her report of being raped and the profound trauma that process created.

Much of what she’s gone through in the last six months, she says, feels like a re-do.

“This process is built to discourage survivors from reporting abuse,” Hanson wrote in a formal response to the Legislature’s investigation. “If your only option for protection is to endure a process that first tears your life apart to defend your abuser’s behavior and then compels you to publicly defend your experience against your abuser’s rebuttal, of course a survivor wouldn’t choose that process.”

So when Hanson testifies before lawmakers, she plans to wrest some control from a series of events that has given her little. Most of all, she intends to make lawmakers understand this cannot continue.

“It’s a second chance to relieve myself of some of the guilt,” Hanson said. “I believed [the university] when they said they were going to change, and I walked away… I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t push the Legislature.”

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