Legislature will pay harassment victims $1 million
SALEM — The Oregon Legislature will pay $1 million to nine victims of harassment at the Capitol, settling a complaint by state labor officials that has put a cloud over the 2019 session.
In a deal announced Tuesday afternoon, March 5, legislative leaders also agreed to push harder and by certain deadlines to reform work behavior at the Capitol. The settlement followed private talks between top legislators and representatives from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.
The bureau said in January that it found substantial evidence that not only were employees and legislators themselves harassed, but that Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, as well as administrators responsible for responding to harassment allegations, were ineffective in handling their complaints.
"We sincerely apologize to the women who suffered harm during their time in the Capitol," Kotek and Courtney said in a joint statement.
Eight women, not identified in the settlement, will share in non-economic damages of amounts ranging up to $415,000. State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, will get $26,000 for legal fees and other expenses but didn't seek damages, according to the labor bureau.
The Legislature will pay that, but it wasn't immediately clear where specifically that money would come from. The settlement was announced hours after Courtney said he was taking medical leave for 10 days, which his staff said wasn't connected to the harassment settlement.
The scope of harassment was put into full public view on Jan. 3 when then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian released the results of his months long investigation.
But the settlement also required the labor bureau, now led by former legislator Val Hoyle, to acknowledge its own investigation was flawed.
In a March 5 statement, with the settlement, the bureau said its process "was politicized in a manner that inhibited both sides from participating thoroughly in the investigation."
The state labor bureau's report in January painted an unflattering picture of many lawmakers and staff, some of whom publicly complained that the report was inaccurate and they hadn't be interviewed.
"I frankly wish he did more work," Kotek said in the January. "His investigation was very limited and based on a few sources. I don't know why he didn't take more time. Maybe it had something to do with him leaving."
Respect for legislative members
Amid the national #MeToo reckoning over sexual harassment, two female state senators came forward in late 2017 to allege sexual harassment by Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican from Roseburg.
Kruse resigned in March 2018 after an outside investigation found he touched women at work inappropriately for years without their consent.
In its January report, the labor bureau detailed what it said was substantial evidence that legislative staff and leaders didn't act appropriately or swiftly enough to curb harassment at the Capitol.
The report found that legislative leaders didn't take "immediate and appropriate corrective action, or in many cases, any action, in response to complaints of incidents of sexual harassment that they knew or should have known about, in particular regarding former Senator Kruse but also with respect to other members of the Legislative Assembly."
The report described how several women who complained of harassment, from interns to employees, were in many cases advised by legislative officials not to discuss the allegations for fear that talking about it could be perceived as retaliatory.
"The record suggests respondents had a higher concern for people who had allegations brought against them rather than for people bringing forward complaints of inappropriate conduct they or others had experienced," according to the report.
The report also mentioned how Courtney told an employee in his office could "either resign, be fired or demoted" because he didn't like that she was dating a state representative. This person told the state labor bureau that she was told that if she resigned, Courtney's office would pay her five months' salary with benefits.
Another employee, referred to as Employee A, reported that a person who was working in the Capitol — who had sexually assaulted her before they worked in the Capitol — asked her to describe her current sexual relationship with another person.
Employee A "was cautioned against talking with anyone regarding the complaint, investigation, or recommendations," because it could be perceived as retaliating against the person who had inquired, by legislative counsel Dexter Johnson, according to the report.
Yet another employee, Employee B, reported that Courtney's communications director, Robin Maxey, offered to buy her a beer at an event, and "stood so close as to be touching the side of his body with hers," and repeated that even after she moved over to the other side of the bar. He then sent her song lyrics that she considered "sexually lewd," over Facebook. Maxey resigned after BOLI released its report.
Two interns who worked for Kruse — who were not identified in the report but later came forward publicly — were also mentioned in the BOLI report.
The settlement states that the two will drop lawsuits they filed against the Legislature that sought $6.7 million.
Anne Montgomery and Adrianna Martin-Wyatt interned for Kruse when they were law students during the 2017 session. They claimed in their suit that legislative leaders didn't do enough to prevent harassment or change Kruse's behavior toward them.
"Defendants expressed callous indifference to reports of Kruse's misconduct, and fostered an environment wherein complaints were discouraged with threats of retaliation, legal exposure, and negative career implications," according to her lawsuit.
The complaint also alleges that Kruse subjected both women to sexual banter and unwanted touching, and that behavior seemed common knowledge among legislators and staff.
Kruse, according to the lawsuit, addressed Montgomery as "little girl," "my baby lawyer," and "sexy," multiple times. He asked about her sex life, touched her thighs, placed his head on hers as she sat at her desk working, and gave frequent, lingering hugs.
Kruse asked Martin-Wyatt about her sex life, asked to be invited over to her house at night, wrapped his arms around her and slid his arms down the front of her body across her breasts, touched her hips, hugged and squeezed her tightly and massaged her shoulders while she was working on the computer, according to the lawsuit.
Both women took steps to avoid Kruse's touching and comments. Martin-Wyatt obtained additional work with another state legislator, and spent half the day in that senator's office, but ultimately left her position early in the middle of the 2017 session.
Montgomery stopped wearing makeup, started wearing baggy clothes and moved her desk to work in another legislator's office.
Altering a Capitol culture
But another legal claim over workplace culture is pending. A lawyer who used to work in the Office of Legislative Counsel, which drafts bills and provides legal advice to legislators, has filed two lawsuits pertaining to her treatment at work.
In 2017, Gail Stevens sued the state and Johnson alleging she was fired from that office "for reporting mismanagement, opposing and reporting unlawful practices, discussing wages and opposing pay inequity."
In February, Stevens sued Courtney and Kotek, claiming that the presiding officers failed to protect her from the retaliation she experienced.
The bureau's final report also recounts Kruse's unwanted physical contact with Gelser and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland. Both senators filed formal complaints against Kruse in late 2017, alleging that for years he had touched them inappropriately at work without their consent.
The Legislature hired an outside attorney to investigate the allegations, which resulted in a report finding that Kruse repeatedly subjected women to unwanted touching despite warnings to stop.
Gelser took to Twitter March 5 to say she was "in awe of the courage of Students A&B, Staff persons 1&2 for bringing their complaint" through Avakian. "This unprecedented 7 figure settlement to acknowledge & remedy harm experienced by women only happened because of them," Gelser continued.
This week's settlement would also give teeth to recommendations by a special work group convened by the Oregon Law Commission. It recommended late last year ways to improve the workplace culture at the Capitol.
The work group suggested creating an independent office to receive workplace complaints, finding a way to take complaints confidentially and abolish a legislative rule that only allows complainants to file a sexual harassment complaint within a year of the incident.
The settlement sets deadlines for the Legislature to implement the commission's suggestions.
The settlement should make it easier for victims to report harassment. It tasks the Legislature with setting up at least three ways to receive complaints, including anonymous ones.
The state investigation found that in the past, the reporting system was flawed and sometimes resulted in victims feeling intimidated or silenced. Johnson and Human Resources Director Lore Christopher were criticized heavily in the BOLI report. As part of the settlement, their offices will be removed from the reporting process.
The Legislature also convened a special committee on Capitol Culture, which began meeting in January. Presiding officers and majority caucus leaders have touted the committee's work during the session, pointing to it as proof that they are eager to improve working conditions.
Settlements in other states
This week's settlement appears to be the first payments stemming from harassment issues at the Legislature in at least a decade. Between 2009 and January 2019, no payments were made on sexual harassment complaints at the Legislature, according to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. The state is self-insured for such claims, meaning it pays such costs out of the general fund.
The Associated Press found last year that eight states paid out $3 million in sexual harassment claims since 2008. But the actual total is likely much higher, the AP reported.
Jeanne Atkins, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, recently urged Senate Democrats "to take whatever steps are necessary to unite around a strong message of your commitment to the eradication of discrimination and harassment in the state capitol, and to take strong action to establish a new era of positive and respectful dynamics between members, staff and the public."
She said that among grass roots Democratic activists, there was concern that public statements didn't reflect the urgency of improving workplace conditions in the statehouse.
"They fear that concern about position and authority, and division among the ranks, is undermining the public message that is so very necessary — a message that harassment and abuse of authority, including everything from overt discrimination to use of intemperate language with the public and subordinates — will not be tolerated in the Capitol," Atkins wrote.
In late February, Courtney said in a speech while presiding over the Senate that recent workplace training taught him to greet people when he enters the office.
"It is with alarm and confusion that they hear it reported that new commitments to politely greeting staff are described as a significant change," Atkins wrote.
"Everyone working in or visiting the state Capitol deserves to feel safe and respected," Kotek and Courtney said in their statement. "We remain committed to improving the Capitol's workplace culture and are working hard to implement that change during the ongoing legislative session."