The Oregon Legislature will pay more than $1.1 million in damages to eight women who were sexually harassed at the state Capitol as part of a settlement agreement with the state's Bureau of Labor and Industries.
In the agreement signed Tuesday, lawmakers also agree to leave legislative counsel and human resources officials out of harassment complaints in the near future. Meanwhile, the agreement explicitly states that a BOLI investigation into harassment last year was "politicized in a manner that inhibited both sides from participating thoroughly," a nod to concerns lawmakers raised repeatedly.
“On behalf of the Oregon Legislature, we sincerely apologize to the women who suffered harm during their time in the Capitol,” House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, both Democrats, said in a joint statement. “Everyone working in or visiting the state Capitol deserves to feel safe and respected.”
The Legislature and the state's labor department have been in mediation talks after an unprecedented report found the Capitol is a hostile work environment and that legislative leaders have allowed sexual harassment to carry on in violation of Oregon law.
An investigation into the Legislature’s conduct was launched in August, when then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian filed a formal complaint against top lawmakers. The findings issued in the BOLI report were largely based on misconduct by former state Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, whose long-term harassment of women in the Capitol created a firestorm of controversy when it emerged publicly in 2017. Kruse eventually resigned, though he denied wrongdoing.
Here are some of the key takeaways of the agreement:
- Eight women will receive a portion of $1,095,000, though the exact amount going to each isn't clear. Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, the first to file a formal complaint against Kruse, will receive $26,000 for legal fees, and the Legislature will pay $200,000 to BOLI to cover attorneys' fees. It is not clear from the settlement who all the eight women are, and BOLI isn't releasing their names.
- A lawsuit filed by two former interns assigned to Kruse's office will be dismissed. The suit, filed while the Legislature and BOLI were in mediation, sought $6.7 million for the harassment and other behavior the two interns endured. It alleged legislative leaders knew of the conduct and failed to act. The two interns combined will receive $705,000.
- The Legislature's top attorney and human resources official will no longer investigate complaints of harassment. Instead, lawmakers will need to hire outside counsel to handle and investigate complaints, until the Legislature creates a new equity office to do that work. Legislative counsel Dexter Johnson and Human Resources Director Lore Christopher have come under repeated fire for their handling of harassment complaints.
- The state's labor commission investigative arm will keep all materials under a protective order to shield the identities of anyone who was involved in the harassment investigation who wishes to remain anonymous.
- Legislative leaders will pursue recommendations from the Oregon Law Commission, including creating an equity office to handle all harassment investigations and complaints. They also agree to expand the ways people can complain of harassment, define harassment and provide more robust protections for interns, volunteers and pages.
- In one of the more pointed lines in the settlement, the parties each acknowledge the investigation launched by Avakian was "politicized." The agreement says that new Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle "is committed to strengthening an atmosphere of impartiality, fairness, and trust to all who participate in agency investigatory processes."
Reached Tuesday, Avakian said he agreed that the process was politicized — but said that wasn't BOLI's fault.
"It was the Legislature that aggressively politicized what was happening," he contended, noting that lawmakers and Capitol staff fought investigatory subpoenas in court. "The bureau did its job in performing an objective, factually-based investigation."
Overall, Avakian said, the settlement appears to hold lawmakers accountable in the future. "If the victims are satisfied, then I think the rest of the agreement has served everybody well," he said.
Audrey Mechling, known as Employee B, is one of the women in the settlement. She argued the Legislature still needed to do more and that legislative leadership needed to change.
“For real justice to be created, we need to have real heartfelt commitment from leadership to creating a culture that doesn’t allow for harassment or this toxic culture in the Capitol,” she said.
Sen. Gelser said a cultural shift will take time and entail more than just a settlement.
“No settlement, no bill, no capital culture committee is going to make the changes we need. We have to radically transform our culture and this idea that we can just take a vote or write a check and have it go away, that’s not the way it works,” Gelser said. “Real people were hurt. There were real problems and we have to address those head on.”