UPDATE (Jan. 4, 10:05 a.m. PT) — A state investigation released Thursday offers damning details about the reaction an Oregon state lawmaker received — from being screamed at to being dismissed — after she came forward with allegations that she had been sexually harassed.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) investigation, conducted over a period of about five months, offers a new picture of the intense political wrangling that occurred behind the scenes as lawmakers grappled with harassment allegations. And it concludes top lawmakers haven’t done nearly enough to curb harassment and other bad behavior in the Capitol, finding that the state Legislature is a hostile work environment. Those conclusions could create a pathway for victims to be financially compensated.
Most striking in the report is the account of Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who in November 2017 accused Sen. Jeff Kruse of touching her breast and placing his hand on her thigh under a dais. In an interview with BOLI investigators, she described feeling marginalized by how some of the state's most powerful Democrats and key legislative leaders reacted.
Gelser told BOLI that Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, suggested she was “grandstanding” by speaking out against Kruse. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, reportedly told Gelser it was hard to move forward with her complaint because people in the Capitol consider Gelser unlikable and that Gelser had made the sexual harassment complaint all about her. Gelser told state investigators that Senate President Peter Courtney yelled at her in a café when the two were discussing harassment.
One Republican lawmaker told Gelser a legislative committee was prepared to “rip her to shreds,” and Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, allegedly told Gelser she needed to “learn how to deal” with working with Kruse.
House Speaker Tina Kotek disagreed with the report's characterization of her conversation with Gelser. Kotek said she has always been personally supportive of Gelser, who she said showed "tremendous courage" in coming forward to report Kruse's behavior.
“The fact that she came forward is going to make the Capitol a better place to work and we’re going to make improvements,” Kotek said.
She said: "I can say very clearly that incidents of workplace harassment that we were aware of we dealt with. We dealt with them in our existing rules," adding the Legislature is also in the midst of upgrading the rules. "So for (the report) to say that as the leader in the House that I somehow let that behavior go unaddressed is just not true."
Courtney, too, took issue with the report.
"I have never knowingly allowed harassment to go on," the Senate president said in a statement. "I have taken severe actions beyond my authority to stop it. I will continue to work as hard as I can to create a workplace free of harassment."
Details from Gelser and others in the report largely align with the complaint Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian filed in August on behalf of four women who said they'd been harassed in the Capitol. The report echoes Avakian's initial complaint that top lawmakers haven't done enough to curb harassment they knew or should have known was occurring. As the complainant in the case, Avakian didn't participate in the investigation.
“The reason we highlight in the report comments other legislators made to [Gelser] is because that helps illustrate whether or not people who were in positions in the Capitol were doing everything they could in order to stop the harassment and protect people from becoming victims,” Avakian told OPB in his first public comments on the investigation. He added later: “That encapsulates the culture in the Capitol right now better than anything I can pick from this case.”
Typically such a finding would open the Legislature to penalties under BOLI’s regulatory process, which has seen record-setting settlements during Avakian’s decadelong tenure atop the bureau. But the new report comes at an unusual time: Avakian is about to leave office.
On Monday, Labor Commissioner-elect Val Hoyle will take control of BOLI, and so will likely dictate whether the bureau seeks consequences for the Legislature. She has not said how she plans to handle the matter, but on Thursday issued a statement saying she was "prepared to do what we need to do to build trust, both with victims and employers…We’re going deal with all of these things in a fair and transparent manner.”
Avakian this week sent BOLI’s chief prosecutor a list of suggested remedies the bureau could seek if it does move forward with charges — including paying a year’s tuition for two student interns who were harassed by Kruse and setting up a $15 million fund to potentially pay other victims. But he told OPB he “wouldn’t second guess at all what the new administration coming into the bureau will do. It’s their decision.”
Gelser’s account is not the only new information to emerge in the BOLI report. Among other revelations:
- Investigators describe a never-reported incident in which Courtney is accused of forcing out a staffer because she was dating a lawmaker in the House, an incident Avakian believes violates state sexual harassment laws. Courtney said in a statement Thursday the woman had resigned in 2015, adding: "We parted amicably and I provided her with a letter of recommendation."
- The investigation uncovered new details on informal complaints about Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, that go well beyond what was already known about accusations of harassment against him. They include reports he reportedly asked for "birthday spankings" from interns and joked about suggesting one female intern was a stripper.
- The document details Avakian's repeated warnings to House Speaker Kotek over the course of months that his bureau might be forced to launch an investigation into harassment at the Capitol. Avakian told investigators he urged Kotek and Courtney to take steps to avoid that action. The history laid out in the report runs contrary to Kotek and Courtney's reaction when Avakian filed his complaint; both expressed surprise at his concerns.
- It also contains new allegations against state Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, citing interviews with people who say he touched a female staffer's leg under the table while they were at a bar in 2017, called her "cute" while holding her chin, and texted her that his wife was out of town. Post denies those claims.
The release of the investigatory report, known as a “substantial evidence determination” in BOLI parlance, marks a significant milestone in an ongoing battle that began when Avakian filed a complaint against top lawmakers on Aug. 1 accusing them of allowing a hostile work environment.
In the months since, top legislators have battled Avakian in court, seeking a judge's ruling that BOLI doesn't have power to subpoena or investigate the Legislature. Lawmakers in November failed to convince a Multnomah County judge that was the case.
At the heart of the BOLI investigation is misconduct by Kruse, who was found to have subjected interns, lobbyists, fellow lawmakers and legislative staff to inappropriate comments and unwelcome touching over a course of years. Those concerns first became public in October 2017 after Gelser complained about Kruse's behavior on Twitter before filing a formal complaint with the Legislature.
The BOLI report — like an investigation ordered by Legislators earlier this year — finds that Kruse had a widely known reputation for inappropriate conduct in the Capitol. But the BOLI investigation suggests that lawmakers didn’t intercede with any urgency.
“There is substantial evidence that [the Legislature] failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action, or in many cases any action, in response to complaints of incidents of sexual harassment that they knew of or should have known about, in particular regarding former Senator Kruse but also with respect to other members of the assembly and individuals at the Capitol,” the report says.
Gelser Says Democrats Didn’t Support Her
Many of the most damning details offered in the report come from Gelser, who voluntarily met with BOLI investigators. In that interview, the senator described feeling isolated after bringing issues with Kruse into the light — a matter that evidently was not helped by the top members of her own party.
Gelser told investigators she was surprised when no Democrats called on Kruse to resign after she filed a complaint — striking, she said, because some Republicans had done so publicly. Gelser said she soon learned that the silence was the result of a request from Burdick, who believed Democrats should let Republicans be the ones to speak out.
“And I called Ginny, and Ginny said something to the effect of, ‘She wanted results, and I wanted to grandstand,’” the report quotes Gelser as saying. “That was really hurtful.”
Gelser said she later talked to Burdick about the exchange, and that Burdick said she hadn’t intended to use the word grandstand.
“But my understanding is she used that word with [House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson] as well,” Gelser told investigators. “So that felt bad.”
Burdick did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gelser also spoke with Kotek by phone. At the time Kotek was apparently mulling whether to issue a statement on the complaint against Kruse.
“She's like, ‘People don't like you, and I was talking to a Republican today and they're, like, you know, this would be a problem but she's just not very likeable,’” Gelser told investigators. “And she says, ‘So, you know, the way this has unfolded you've made it all about yourself.’”
In December 2017, Time Magazine named a group of people who had come forward to share stories of sexual harassment as its Person of the Year. The list included Gelser.
Gelser told the BOLI investigator that she called Kotek back after the conversation.
“I was like, ‘Tina, I hope that at the end of that conversation you said to that person whether you and I like this person or not is irrelevant,’” Gelser said in the report. “The behavior, it’s against policy and it’s inappropriate. Like, it shouldn’t be … based on whether or not I’m likeable. And that is something that I have heard a lot from leadership, that I’m unlikable, that I’m disliked, that I’m unfriendly, grandstanding, media hungry.”
Kotek said her instinct was to try to let the process play itself out without making the situation overly partisan. It was a stressful time, she said, and everyone's goal was that Kruse leave the statehouse. Her intent was to give Gelser helpful advice, and not in any way appear unsupportive, she said.
Kotek called on Kruse to resign in February 2018, not long he before he ultimately did.
The report goes on to describe a tense exchange with Courtney, the Senate’s most powerful lawmaker, that Gelser said occurred when Senate Democrats met to vote on their leadership team in Salishan in November 2018.
Gelser told the BOLI investigators that she approached Courtney at a coffee shop and raised concerns that included how the Legislature was responding to the BOLI complaint and about a recent email state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, had sent to Courtney’s chief of staff. Gelser believed the email amounted to harassment, she said, and that Courtney should enforce state policies.
“And at that point he freaked out and was yelling at me that I didn't understand,” Gelser told investigators. “I didn't understand how hard this was on him. How frightened he was, how complicated the situation was with Brian Boquist who had been there for a really long time. And how dare I suggest that he not care about people or that he's done nothing.”
The disturbance led Courtney’s wife to ask him to leave the building, Gelser told investigators.
Courtney said Thursday that Gelser had approached him and his wife while they were eating breakfast.
"The conversation became heated," Courtney said. "I apologized to her later that morning. I believe we have moved on.”
According to the report, negative reactions weren’t limited to Democrats. Gelser told investigators that Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters refused to ask Kruse to stay away from the Capitol in early 2018, as the investigation into his conduct was playing out.
“‘There's no way I'm asking him to leave,’” Gelser said Winters told her. “‘You just need to learn how to deal with this.’”
Winters declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Other senators were apparently angry over the investigation into Kruse. Gelser told investigators of an instance in which Sen. Alan Olsen, a Canby Republican, called a lobbyist a “whiner” because she had signed a letter speaking out against harassment at the Capitol. And Gelser said Olsen told her it was a good thing her case hadn’t come before the Conduct Committee he sits on “because [they] were going to tear [me] to shreds.”
The report also says Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, walked out of an interview with the investigator brought in by legislative leaders charged with looking into Kruse’s conduct.
The investigator, Dian “Dee” Rubanoff, told BOLI staff: “He became very angry and hostile during our interview, and he eventually stormed out. He said, ‘We know you're a Democrat,’ and he impugned my integrity, and he stormed out and slammed the door.”
Olsen and Girod did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
More Allegations Of Harassment
The BOLI report also includes new details on other harassment accusations.
Two women made informal complaints to the House speaker’s office about Rep. David Gomberg, a Democrat from Otis, in 2013.
Kotek told Gomberg his behavior was “not acceptable” and that “he needs to change,” according to the report. Gomberg previously told OPB that his actions weren’t perceived as “sexual in nature” but they made women feel uncomfortable.
Gomberg said the BOLI report is the first he’s heard of the specific allegations against him; Kotek told OPB she didn’t give Gomberg specifics because she didn’t want to reveal his accusers to him.
He said Thursday that after his 2013 meeting with the speaker, the one in which he was told his behavior was inappropriate, he immediately apologized and felt awful he had made anyone uncomfortable. He went through what he described as personal counseling to better understand how his behavior even unintentionally could affect others. He also issued a public apology at the time, which included a written apology to every member of the Legislature.
“My understanding was the apologies were accepted and the matter was closed,” he said.
Avakian said investigators included the Gomberg complaints because the labor commission was led to believe from legislative leadership the only complaint against Gomberg was that he had danced with someone on the House floor in celebration after a bill was passed.
But documents obtained under subpoenas from the Legislature revealed the allegations go much further. They include “touching reported by several individuals” and sexualized comments, such as telling a young woman she should “get ready for her birthday spanking” and joking about introducing a young intern on the House floor as a stripper.
Kotek, the House speaker, said she dealt with the Gomberg situation swiftly and her intent was always to protect the identity of the women who were harassed.
The investigation also revealed complaints were made to Dexter Johnson, the Legislature’s attorney, and according to documents obtained under the subpoenas. A handwritten note obtained by BOLI states, “Dexter concluded that this was not harassment and could be dealt with internally.”
Newly public allegations against Post, the Keizer Republican representative, appeared to create division between the lawmaker and his own caucus Thursday.
In a statement, Post acknowledged the 2017 accusations of inappropriate behavior. The BOLI report cites a witness who said the lawmaker grabbed a female staffer's leg while at a bar, sent her inappropriate texts about his wife being out of town and called the staffer "cute." Post said when those allegations emerged, "I denied them, it was investigated and closed."
But the House Republican Caucus on Thursday issued a release decrying Post's conduct.
It said an "investigation found that [Post] had engaged in inappropriate and unwelcome conduct, including physical contact, with a Legislative staffer. Such conduct is unacceptable and the House Republican caucus leadership team strongly condemns it."
Post says that statement amounted to a release of confidential information. "I was told by [legislative counsel] and [human resources] after the matter was settled that I wasn't to speak of it ever," he said. "I've honored that. I denied the allegations then and still do."
Post also says that he'd never quotes from allegations against him that appear in the BOLI report.
Avakian Says He Gave Early Warning
The BOLI report also suggests legislative leaders weren’t as blindsided by Avakian’s August complaint as they professed after it was filed.
The labor commissioner says he spoke with Kotek three times in the months leading up to his complaint, and Courtney once. In those discussions, he says he informed the legislators that he was concerned someone might file a complaint with BOLI about harassment at the Capitol. He says he walked them through what the process would be if that occurred.
“There were women calling me and this agency that needed help,” Avakian told OPB. “They needed a place to voice their concerns, and they didn’t feel like they had one.”
Ultimately, Avakian offered a list of nine steps he believed the Legislature should take to head off such a complaint. They included moving to expel Kruse from the Senate, paying the tuition of the student interns harassed by Kruse, and setting up a fund for other potential victims.
He says Kotek and Courtney didn’t react to his suggestions and never took action.
“There was absolutely no surprise,” Avakian said. “In fact there was a lot of preparation. And it was a sad thing that, as they defended themselves, they attempted to portray that this was some kind of a shock and surprise for them.”