Not long before they were accused of permitting a culture of sexual harassment on Wednesday, the leaders of Oregon's Legislative Assembly issued a memo.
The two-page document laid out steps House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney had been taking — in the wake of a harassment scandal that rocked the Legislature last year — to improve matters going forward.
Among the changes announced: a “new independent reporting option” for people who’d experienced harassment, but didn’t feel comfortable reporting it to legislative attorneys or human resources officials. Tapped to field such reports was Dian Rubanoff, a Lake Oswego-based lawyer who
against former state Sen. Jeff Kruse earlier this year.
But Rubanoff’s hiring has now been cast in an awkward light.
A surprise civil rights complaint filed Wednesday by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian alleges a pattern of underplaying reports of harassment in the Legislature — both in regard to Kruse and others at the Capitol. One of its more troubling allegations involves Rubanoff.
Avakian said that while interviewing two student interns who’d been harassed by Kruse, Rubanoff, without prompting, told the interns “there was no legal definition for their status and there was no way for them to file suit against” the Legislature.
Avakian’s complaint said that’s not true. In 2013, the Legislature passed a law specifically extending protections from harassment to interns. Prior to the law, they’d been excluded from such protections, since they didn’t technically meet the definition of “employee.”
“Relying in part on [Rubanoff’s] opinion, neither Student A nor Student B pursued a claim,” Avakian said in the complaint, referring to the anonymous interns who complained about Kruse.
Rubanoff has strongly denied Avakian's claims, which will be investigated by attorneys within his own Bureau of Labor and Industries.
“I categorically deny that I told either of the law students that there was no definition of their legal status, or that there was no way for them to file suit,” she wrote in response to questions from OPB. “I had no discussion with either of them, at any time during the investigation, regarding whether they had a right to file a lawsuit. In my role as an investigator, I do not give legal advice to witnesses.”
In the wake of Avakian’s complaint, legislative leaders have stood by their choice to hire Rubanoff to work with potential victims of harassment.
“We chose her because of the work she had done on the Kruse thing,” Courtney told OPB on Friday. “She’s an extraordinary lawyer. Now she’s getting hit, and I've got to say I think that’s terribly sad.”
Courtney also defended his role as the Senate’s presiding officer, saying he has “taken every complaint that has come to me and moved very quick on it.” The complaint filed by Avakian notes that interns were placed in Kruse’s office well after informal allegations of misconduct were made against him.
But the Senate president acknowledged there is an appetite at the Capitol for an external resource where people can lodge complaints. “We heard some people were hesitant to come forward because they felt it wasn’t independent,” he said.
Under a contract signed in late June, Rubanoff and her law firm will be paid $290 an hour to field, investigate and evaluate “complaints or concerns from employees of the legislative branch, legislators, lobbyists and other persons who work in or visit the State Capitol” about conduct that violates a state personnel rule on harassment. The state has agreed to pay up to $100,000 for these services.
Rubanoff declined to comment on her new role Thursday.
The decision to create an external reporting option varies from a recent decision by the Washington Legislature, which has also grappled with sexual harassment complaints. In July, Washington's Senate announced it will create a new internal human resources position to field complaints.
KUOW reported that decision didn't sit well with some women, who wanted "an outside, independent reporting process."
Rubanoff’s independence only goes so far. The contract is between Rubanoff’s law firm and the state Legislative Counsel’s Office, and requires her to consult with state lawyers “as to an appropriate response or course of action” once she has evaluated complaints.
In light of some of Avakian’s other allegations, that interplay could prove concerning to victims.
Avakian said Dexter Johnson, the Legislature’s top lawyer, repeatedly warned victims of harassment not to speak about their experiences. In one instance, he’s alleged to have told an intern her career would be over if her allegations against Kruse came to light.
Like Rubanoff, Johnson strenuously denies those claims. But state Sen. Sara Gelser has offered a similar account of Johnson's discussion with her about her own harassment complaint.
In a conversation with reporters Wednesday, Kotek largely refrained from making any judgments about Avakian’s allegations, saying she’d wait until everything had come to light.
“If in the course of this investigation, or the further scrutiny that will come with it, we have been found to have not done things appropriately … then I will take action and I will be unhappy about that,” Kotek said.
Courtney also declined to comment substantively on the complaint, saying those comments would come when the Legislature issues a formal response in coming weeks.
"This thing caught me by surprise. Big surprise," Courtney said. "I take it very seriously."
Rubanoff’s new role with the Legislature might only be short term. It’s been presented as a stop-gap option while the Oregon Law Commission works on recommendations for how the Legislature can improve its policies going forward.