Second inquiry into inappropriate touching at Capitol underway
SALEM — Legislative counsel has opened a second informal probe against a state senator for unwanted touching of women at the Capitol.
Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, last week was stripped of his committee assignments by Senate President Peter Courtney.
A letter from Courtney to Kruse released to the media Tuesday confirmed other accounts that Kruse's alleged unwanted touching of women and smoking in his office had become a chronic problem at the Capitol. Courtney ordered the door to be removed from Kruse's Senate office.
Kruse was previously reported for similar behavior in early 2016 and was directed to stop, said Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson.
Courtney described his sanctions against Kruse as an "unprecedented step."
"I have never taken this kind of action before but I am left with no other options at this time to protect our employees, members of the legislature and the public," Courtney wrote in the letter.
Legislative counsel is now performing its second informal inquiry into Kruse, who is accused of "inappropriate touching in a non-sexual way," Johnson said Monday.
In the letter to Kruse, Courtney said "two new incidents were brought to my attention," and he reported them to Employee Services and Legislative Counsel.
When a reporter pressed Courtney in a phone interview Tuesday as to why action wasn't taken against Kruse until last week, his spokesman, Robin Maxey, intervened.
"We are going to fall back on the statement issued previously," Maxey said, referring to Courtney's letter.
Courtney did report the previous complaint to legislative counsel and Employee Services but did not sanction the senator at that time, Maxey explained later.
The letter was dated four days after Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, sent a tweet to a Senate Republican staffer asking if he would stop caucus members from inappropriately touching women. The tweet responded to an accusation by outgoing Senate Republican spokesman Jonathan Lockwood that Gelser and Gov. Kate Brown had accepted money from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual assault by many women. Gelser denied that she had accepted money from Weinstein.
"Recently, we have seen a tidal wave of women speaking out and standing up against harassment, discrimination, and abuse," Gov. Brown said in a statement Tuesday. "As examples of these issues have again stoked a national dialogue, it is all too clear that no workplace or community is immune to them — sadly even in our state Capitol. This behavior must be stopped, and I applaud the courage of those who brought these allegations to light."
Gelser confirmed to The Oregonian Monday that Kruse had touched her inappropriately but declined to discuss details about what Kruse had done.
"I hope that what comes of this discussion is that it's not about a set of experiences that I had, but about a culture that needs to change," Gelser told Oregon Public Broadcasting Monday.
She made an informal complaint about Kruse's conduct in March 2016, at which time legislative counsel and Employee Services officials instructed him to stop the behavior.
Courtney said Kruse had already been warned about his treatment of women at the Capitol.
"Continuing to touch women at work is inappropriate workplace conduct of which you have already been warned," Courtney wrote. "Let me be very clear. Women in the Capitol do NOT want you to touch them."
Neither Kruse nor Gelser could be reached for comment Monday and Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, declined an interview request from the EO / Pamplin Capital Bureau Monday, but confirmed an account she provided to The Oregonian in which she recalled seeing Kruse wrap his arms around Gelser on the floor of the Senate and told Kruse to stop.
Johnson said Monday evening that his office was conducting a new fact-finding inquiry to determine the validity of the latest accusations against Kruse.
Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day said his caucus is taking the ongoing investigation seriously.
"To our knowledge, there has been no formal complaint filed. Upon the conclusion of the investigation we will work within our process to resolve these issues in cooperation with human resources, legislative counsel, caucus leadership, and the Senate president. To respect the privacy of all parties, we will not comment further on the allegations," Ferrioli said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
Removing Kruse from his committee assignments significantly weakens his power to influence legislation before it reaches the Senate floor.
Kruse sat on Senate committees on Health Care; on the Judiciary; and Education, as well as a newly created Task Force on Health Care Cost Review.
The legislature's policy for lawmakers accused of harassment is intended to provide both informal and formal "options to correct harassing conduct before it rises to the level of severe or pervasive harassment or discrimination," according to a copy of the policy.
Within a year of the date of alleged harassment, a member of the legislature or an employee of the legislative branch may make an informal report to Employee Services or to legislative counsel's office.
The report "must include specific details of alleged harassment," including the name of the alleged harasser, and the date and times of alleged harassment.
When an informal report is made, the office that receives the complaint — Legislative Counsel or Employee Services — "shall immediately take appropriate action to ensure the reporting party has a safe and nonhostile work environment."
This may mean moving the employee to a different supervisor or taking other measures.
With the permission of the person making the informal report, legislative counsel or employee services is to notify the leader of the same caucus as the alleged harasser of the report and who made it.
A formal complaint is more drastic. It must be in writing and includes the name of the person being accused of harassment and witnesses, as well as details about the alleged harassment and a description of the remedy.
An outside investigator conducts a fact-finding, which is then delivered to a legislative committee on conduct.
The committee can recommend reprimand, censure or expulsion, and after each party is given a chance to respond, the chamber votes whether to adopt the sanction recommended by the committee. It requires a two-thirds majority vote.