Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian has accused state legislative leaders of creating a hostile work environment in which reports of sexual harassment were ignored, underplayed or buried.
In a complaint filed Wednesday with his own Bureau of Labor and Industries, Avakian says Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, two Democratic leaders of the Oregon Legislature, repeatedly ignored complaints of sexual harassment and unwanted touching by now former-Sen. Jeff Kruse until they became public last year.
Avakian says Courtney and Kotek continued to allow Kruse’s office to employ student interns even after two state legislators had complained about their own treatment at his hands.
The labor commissioner also accuses Courtney and Kotek of blocking his office’s attempts to assist women who complained of harassment, and legislative lawyers of discouraging women from seeking legal help or taking their accusations public.
Avakian also says a top aide to Courtney has been accused of sexually harassing a female legislative employee.
The accusations, made less than three months before ballots go out in elections to determine who controls the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, are stunning — particularly given that Avakian and the elected officials he suggests allowed a culture of harassment to fester are all Democrats.
Kotek and Courtney responded to the complaint in a memo sent to Capitol staff, elected officials and lobbyists shortly after 2 p.m. Monday.
“The Legislature will participate transparently in this process,” it said. “We welcome additional scrutiny and a thorough investigation related to the Commissioner’s Complaint.”
They went on to list a series of steps set into motion since news of Kruse’s behavior surfaced last year—including asking for a review of state policies and creating an external contact for people reporting inappropriate behavior in the Capitol.
Kotek separately released a statement, saying: “As a woman and person in a position of leadership, I have absolutely taken every complaint that was brought to my attention seriously. We must do better to change the culture in the Capitol and I am 100 percent committed to doing so.”
Many of the incidents that labor department lawyers will investigate have been made public before this. Legislative leaders have asked the Oregon Law Commission to review state policies and laws to ensure the Capitol is a harassment-free workplace. They’ve asked for recommendations in time for the 2019 Legislative session.
But in his complaint, Avakian and four women who say they were harassed depict legislative leaders — particularly the Legislature’s top lawyer and human resources head — as not taking sexual harassment complaints seriously and say they should have moved faster.
“Over a period of years, Respondents have permitted a generally hostile environment based upon sex, including but not limited to subjecting multiple individuals in the Capitol to unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” Avakian says in the seven-page complaint. “Individuals subjected to the hostile environment and discriminatory conduct included legislators, employees, lobbyists, and student interns.”
The Bureau of Labor and Industries, or BOLI, hears complaints from the general public about discrimination, harassment and unfair labor practices. BOLI lawyers, who have subpoena power, investigate those claims. If they find substantial evidence of wrongdoing, cases go to the labor commission’s prosecution division and are heard by an administrative law judge, who makes a recommendation to the labor commissioner. Avakian serves essentially the same role as a judge in most cases, with the power to levy damages or demand policy changes.
But the commissioner also has the power to file his own complaints. Avakian has made fairly routine use of that power, filing more commissioner’s complaints than all past BOLI commissioners put together. In those cases, the complaints go through the same investigative process, this time with the labor commissioner himself in the position of the complainant and a deputy commissioner serving as the final arbiter.
The BOLI complaint lists as respondents the state Legislature and the Legislative Administration Committee — a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers, led by Courtney and Kotek, that oversees human resources and other important functions of the Legislature. Avakian is listed as the sole complainant, but he says in the filing that he is acting on behalf of four women, who are not named in the seven-page document but have spoken with him.
Two of the women were student interns when they say Kruse, a Roseburg Republican who resigned earlier this year amid harassment complaints, subjected them to inappropriate behavior.
One says Kruse harassed her on a regular basis over a five-to-six week period when she worked in his office in fall 2016 — seven months after state Sens. Sara Gelser and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward went to legislative lawyers to complain about Kruse’s behavior. He called the intern “little girl” and “sexy” and said, “her husband was really lucky.” He also, according to the BOLI complaint, placed his hands on her thighs despite her requests that he stop.
Another former Kruse intern says he harassed her from January through April 2017. In the complaint, Avakian says the young woman accused Kruse of inappropriate comments and touching — but also told the labor commissioner she felt ignored and even intimidated by the legislative staff she approached to report Kruse’s behavior.
“When Student B described the unwelcome conduct to staff members of other legislators, they did not take it seriously and said they had heard it before,” Avakian writes. “Legislative Counsel’s office subsequently called Student B to inform her of the possibility that her identity might be made public in response to a records request … In that call, Legislative Counsel’s office told Student B that her career would be over.”
Allegations of Kruse’s sexual harassment first became public in October 2017. Courtney stripped him of his committee assignments and removed the door from his Capitol office, though he said those punishments were a response to both inappropriate conduct allegations and Kruse’s repeated habit of smoking cigarettes in his office. The Legislature later hired an outside lawyer, Dian Rubanoff, to investigate the allegations against Kruse.
Both of the student interns said that in the course of her investigation, Rubanoff told them they had no legal recourse against anyone in the Legislature, despite a 2013 state law extending sexual harassment protections to student interns.
Avakian’s complaint also accuses Rubanoff of refusing to forward a sealed letter from his office to the students. He eventually sent the letter to the women through their schools. They each contacted him “within days of receiving” his letter and “expressed anger and fear over the prospect that their careers in public service would be over if they came forward.”
In the letter Avakian wanted to send the women, obtained by OPB through a public records request, the commissioner criticized the Legislature for not moving fast enough to help them and suggested the women may have other legal options:
“From what I know about your experience, it appears clear that the legislature did not provide the kind of safe and healthy environment to which you were entitled,” Avakian wrote the women. “… Whether or not you choose to pursue legal action for the harassment you experienced there, it does not appear to me that anyone has reached out to you, and others, to in some ways make things right. I have some ideas about how that might be accomplished …”
The two other women in Avakian’s complaint are state employees who say their complaints about harassment or mistreatment were downplayed by legislative lawyers.
One woman says Dexter Johnson, the Legislature’s top lawyer, warned her not to speak to anyone else about her experiences because “additional conversation or actions outside the investigation could be construed as retaliatory.” She also says legislative officials told her the man she accused of harassment would not work in the Capitol again and then failed to inform her after he was hired to another position there.
The other woman says she went to Johnson and Sen. Courtney’s chief of staff in 2015 to report sexual harassment complaints against Courtney’s communications director. The BOLI complaint does not name the staffer, but Robin Maxey is listed as Courtney’s communications director online. The woman said the Courtney staffer repeatedly ignored her requests to stop leaning into her at a bar after she declined his offer of a beer, and then sent her what she considered sexually lewd song lyrics by text message without her consent.
The woman says Johnson told her “he was brokering an informal settlement” between her and Courtney’s aide. Johnson also allegedly said, “that she was not allowed to have contact with him, and that she should not talk about her complaint to anyone.”
Johnson, the Legislature’s legal counsel, said the legislative body will participate in the state’s investigation.
“Other than to say that the Legislature is going to participate fully and transparently in the commissioner’s process and welcomes that scrutiny, I can’t really comment on any particulars and we need to let that process go forward,” Johnson said.
Avakian’s complaint also lists two previously reported complaints about harassment in the Legislature and implies in both cases that legislative leaders and non-elected officials either downplayed the accusations or failed to follow a clear, standardized process for investigating them.
Last September, someone at the Capitol accused Rep. Diego Hernandez, a Portland Democrat, of maintaining a list of female lobbyists that ranked them by appearance.
“Respondents determined that because the inquiry did not yield evidence supporting the allegations, they were false,” Avakian writes. “Dexter Johnson stated it appeared the allegation of a list was ‘invented’ by a disgruntled lobbyist.”
The BOLI complaint says House Speaker Kotek received informal complaints in 2013 and again in 2015 against Rep. David Gomberg, a Democrat from Otis. Gomberg has apologized for offending two women who accused him of “inappropriate humor or inappropriate touching,” including “grabbing a female staff person to dance with her on the House floor.”
According to Avakian’s filing, Johnson called one incident “a very minor matter” and another a “low-level” complaint.
Avakian is not talking about his complaint outside of a written statement released Wednesday: “Nobody should have to endure harassment,” he writes. “And if there were ever a place a person should be guaranteed fairness and justice, it’s in the Oregon State Capitol.”
But the document itself and public records reviewed by OPB show his office began reaching out to legislative leaders last December, not long after the accusations against Kruse first became public. Avakian offered assistance to victims of prior sexual harassment at the Legislature, as well as help to lawmakers in coming up with clearer and more professional policies for handling harassment allegations in the future.
The complaint likely will be seen by some Democrats as a parting shot at his own party by Avakian, who was seen as a potential candidate for governor as recently as several years ago. He’s run unsuccessfully twice for higher office; he lost a Democratic primary for the U.S. House in 2011 and became the first Democratic nominee to lose a statewide race since 2002 when Republican Dennis Richardson beat him to become secretary of state two years ago.
The complaint offers easy campaign fodder for Republicans, who are in the minority statewide and in both chambers of the state Legislature. Democrats hope to capture supermajorities in the House and Senate this fall, which would make it far easier to raise taxes to help pay for government programs.
Avakian is a controversial figure and has drawn both national praise and national criticism for his active use of the labor commissioner’s power. But it’s his successor’s approach to the job that could determine whether his complaint against Capitol workers and lawmakers has any impact.
Avakian decided not to seek a third term as labor commissioner this year. He leaves office in January. Given that BOLI investigations can stretch out over months or even years, that could leave incoming Commissioner Val Hoyle, like Avakian a former state legislator, to decide whether the investigation goes all the way through the process or dies.
Hoyle said it would be inappropriate to comment since she may be asked to weigh in on the investigation as the future commissioner.
“What I can say is I think it’s important that people have a safe and respectable workplace,” Hoyle said.
OPB reporters Lauren Dake and Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.