Oregon lawmaker accused of misconduct in vaccine debate
Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, has been of the subject of an official conduct complaint following interactions earlier this year with a group of Slavic women opposing HB 3063, which would have removed non-medical exemptions for required immunizations but died in the Senate.
In May, Witt had testified in support of the bill and cited "Russian trolls" as a source of misinformation. The comment upset some individuals observing the hearing, including Juliya Gudev and other Slavic women who opposed the bill.
"I found Rep. Witt's comment referring to 'Russian trolls' as a source of misinformation being spread on vaccines to be highly offensive to not only me as a mother, but me as someone of Russian origin," Gudev, who filed the complaint against Witt, said at the House Special Committee on Conduct meeting on Dec. 18.
Days after Witt's comments on the floor, Gudev and a group went to Witt's office to request an apology for his comments.
Witt refused to apologize and told the group that he was offended by their request. Later, to the investigator, Witt admitted he was "extremely adamant and forceful" in the interaction.
"His verbal and physical gestures made us feel like we were the Russian trolls spreading misinformation," Gudev said of the meeting in Witt's office.
The group that came to Witt's office "insisted on an apology for my "racist" comments," Witt wrote in a statement to the Spotlight. "I explained that my comments weren't discriminatory, but rather fact, backed up by more than a dozen news sources. They were not interested in my explanation and once again insisted on an apology, which I refused."
"Did I raise my voice? Possibly. Was I worked up because 8 people barged into my office, calling me a racist and demanded an apology? Yes."
After Gudev spoke with other lawmakers and attorneys from Stoel Rives LLP, which contracts with the state Legislature to perform conduct investigations, she decided to file a formal complaint.
The resulting investigative report, submitted to the Legislature in late November, found Witt had not discriminated against the group on the basis of gender, national origin or other protected status.
"I find it more likely than not that he (Witt) raised his voice and became visibly angry during the interaction with Ms. Gudev. I also find Ms. Gudev's claim that she was upset by the interaction to be credible," wrote Melissa Healy, an attorney with Stoel Rives. "That said, the question is not whether Rep. Witt conducted himself in a professional manner — it is whether his conduct was more likely than not motivated by discriminatory bias against Ms. Gudev and her group."
"This unfounded complaint is a politically motivated attack that has cost the state of Oregon time and money to investigate," Witt wrote to the Spotlight.
At the Dec. 18 hearing, Healy noted that Witt believed the group who came to his office in May was part of a larger group of HB 3063 opponents who had been frequently contacting Witt.
"Treating somebody with irritation, or rudely, because you believe they're part of a certain political group, is not the same thing as treating them differently because of national origin," Healy noted.
"At best, this was extremely poor judgement on the part of Rep. Witt to use a disparaging reference about a large group of people that he knew opposed this bill and that he could see was present in the gallery that day," Carissa Bonham, an active opponent of HB 3630, said at the hearing. "At worst, it is harassing speech designed to target and disparage a politically-active group of citizens of the same national origin that he was referencing."
The House Committee on Conduct postponed a decision on Witt's conduct until January amid uncertainty about the new Rule 27. That legislative personnel rule, which prohibits harassment and aiding discrimination, was only made operational on Nov. 25.
At the committee hearing, members were unclear on what a decision would mean and what remedial measures could be imposed under the new rule.
"I would like to acknowledge that we are at an awkward transition time, both from a process standpoint and other factors, from the old rule to the new rule," said Committee Chair Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene.
Fahey and committee member Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, disagreed on if the purpose of the committee was to evaluate conduct generally, or only in accordance with the new Rule 27.
Multiple committee members said that even if no discrimination took place, Witt's behavior with the group appeared unprofessional.
Rep. Ron Noble, R- McMinnville, drew a distinction between Witt's comments on the House floor and in his office.
"I do, however, believe that as a representative of the people, my speech on the floor of the House of Representatives is the highest form of protected speech ... however, I'm not so sure that that applies to my office decorum and the business of the Legislature. So I'm wrestling with that," Noble said.
"I'm not happy with the comments and really I'm not happy with ... my friend and colleague Representative Witt's behavior in response to this group. I think it does nothing but puts a black mark on our ability to do our jobs," Noble said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.