Legislative leaders say that state Rep. Mike Nearman, a Republican from Independence, is under criminal investigation for his alleged part in allowing anti-lockdown demonstrators to enter the closed Capitol in Salem during a Dec. 21 special session.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, made the disclosure Thursday, Jan. 7, during a briefing on how the Legislature will conduct its 2021 session amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic and protests.
"Oregon State Police has confirmed and informed us that Rep. Mike Nearman did open a door to allow demonstrators to enter the building," Kotek said during the briefing, which she conducted with Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. "This is a serious, serious breach of public trust. His actions put legislators, staff and law enforcement in danger. In fact, law enforcement officers were hurt when demonstrators came into the building."
Five men were arrested, one of them surrendering to police six days after the session. Police are seeking the identity of another man.
The invasion did not stop legislators from approving the four bills put before them during the 10-hour session.
Nearman was identified by a video camera in the Capitol.
Police said after the close of the one-day session they were investigating whether the demonstrators had inside help to enter the building. Some demonstrators made it into a vestibule at the northwest side, but police contained and ejected them. Police repelled a later attempt to breach the west entrance, but demonstrators broke windows and damaged the doors.
The pandemic prompted officials to close the Capitol to the public on March 18.
Nearman, 56, is starting his fourth term from District 23, which covers parts of four mid-Willamette Valley counties. He lives outside Independence; the city is within another House district. He unseated an incumbent in the 2014 primary after the incumbent joined other Republicans in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples. A federal judge overturned Oregon's ban in 2014, and the U.S. Supreme Court legalized such relationships in 2015.
Kotek said she would wait for the Oregon State Police to conclude its criminal investigation before considering other potential actions against Nearman as a sitting legislator. Results of the criminal investigation would be dealt with by the Marion County district attorney, not the Legislature.
Among the potential legislative actions are a separate investigation by the House Committee on Conduct, which has equal numbers of members from each party, and Nearman's loss of House committee assignments. The latter step, which Kotek can take herself, would leave Nearman little ability to weigh in on shaping legislation, other than his votes in the full House.
Kotek compared what happened in Salem Dec. 21 to the violent invasion Wednesday, Jan. 6, by supporters of President Donald Trump into the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was conducting a final tally of state electoral votes that confirmed the victory of Democrat Joe Biden for president.
"Legislative members and staff felt terrorized by the incursion, particularly those who are members of color, because their rhetoric was out of the Trump playbook and very much caters to white supremacists' motivations. People were very much upset by that entry into the building by the demonstrators," she said. "Rep. Nearman's actions were completely unacceptable. It is serious and reckless endangerment."
Although a felony charge appears unlikely in this case, a felony conviction of a legislator would automatically vacate the seat, even if the legislator appeals the conviction.
Voters changed the Oregon Constitution in 1994, the year after state Sen. Peg Jolin resigned her seat under pressure. She had been convicted on eight felony counts in 1992 in connection with a fundraising appeal in which she said she had a campaign deficit, when she actually had a surplus. At the time, expulsion was not automatic. Jolin died of cancer in 2001.
NOTE: Clarifies, at request by city manager, that Nearman lives outside Independence. The city itself is in District 20.
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