A legislative committee charged with handling harassment and retaliation cases involving lawmakers themselves held off making findings Wednesday in a case concerning an Oregon state senator and her chief of staff.
In a bid to ensure that all potential evidence had been considered, members of the Senate Conduct Committee elected to push back their final determination as to whether Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, had retaliated against chief of staff Laura Hanson for taking medical leave.
"We’re blazing new trails here,” state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat (by way of Texas) and co-chair of the committee, said toward the end of the hearing. “For some of us it’s not our first rodeo, but this may be the first prized stock that we’ve ridden in some time.”
As OPB has reported, the case centers around whether Gelser retaliated against Hanson when Hanson twice took time off for medical reasons in late 2019.
An independent investigation concluded there was no evidence such retaliation took place, and Gelser has denied ever dissuading Hanson from taking time off or being angry at her for doing so. Hanson has remained adamant that she was treated harshly for taking time off that was legally protected.
Beyond those particulars, the case calls into question whether the Legislature has sufficient protections in place for victims of harassment in the Capitol to keep their experiences confidential. Lawmakers tweaked the rules for handling harassment in 2019, after a scandal involving a different state senator, who is no longer in office.
The matter with Gelser arose in late December, when Hanson raised concerns that their working relationship had become untenable and toxic. Gelser then reported those comments to human resources staff, as required under the Capitol’s new rules for harassment and retaliation — essentially lodging a report about herself.
In the ensuing process, a formal investigation was launched into the matter. And even though Hanson had no desire for her allegations to go public, under the Legislature’s rules a final investigatory report was required to go before lawmakers in an open hearing. That’s what occurred Wednesday afternoon.
The three-hour hearing delved into the particulars of Hanson and Gelser’s working relationship.
Gelser described the many documents she’d given an investigator — including all emails and texts between her and Hanson. As she had before, Gelser also criticized the process that led the matter into a public hearing without Hanson’s consent.
“I hate that this has come out in a public kind of way,” she said. “This is a conversation that should have happened with HR and should have been protected with HR.”
Hanson, meanwhile, offered a blistering assessment of the Legislature’s harassment and retaliation policy, which has included placing her on paid leave for the last six months.
“It’s important to point out that this process is and has been completely outside of my control and I’ve been required to go through it,” she said. “I was suspended from work based on even trying to talk about these issues and resolve them.”
Even the independent investigator the Legislature hired to examine the case appeared to find flaws in how the rules played out. Brenda Baumgart, a lawyer at the firm Stoel Rives, told lawmakers she would reserve more pointed critiques for another time.
“It probably does not come as a surprise that I certainly have opinions of the rule and what I would offer in the way of recommended changes,” Baumgart said. “We now have the benefit of looking at this through the lens of how it has played out in practice. I believe there are important lessons learned.”
Ultimately, lawmakers wound up holding off on making any concrete findings Wednesday because of another process question.
Hanson repeated several times that she believed there was more evidence she had been retaliated against than was considered in Baumgart’s investigation. And she pointed out that, as a function of being placed on leave, she didn’t have access to work emails that she thinks could bolster her case.
That lack of access to evidence seemed to give lawmakers pause — particularly after the Legislature’s equity officer commented that such an imbalance in Hanson’s case had led to a process change so that similar complainants are given copies of their work emails.
“Speaking for myself, I am not ready for a work session,” said state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, signaling that she did not want to make a final determination yet.
Prozanski, who chaired the hearing, gave the various players in the case until July 31 to look into any further records that might exist. Another hearing has not been scheduled.