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House panel starts hearing sexual harassment allegations against Portland Democrat.

FILE - Representative Diego Hernandez
State Rep. Diego Hernandez fired back Monday, Feb. 1, against outside investigators' findings that he created a hostile work environment for three women at the Capitol.

But as the House Committee on Conduct began hearings on the findings, one of the women whose identity was masked described Hernandez's behavior as "violent and abusive" and said "he should be expelled from the Legislature."

Her demand was supported by an open letter to the committee, issued by 17 organizations and signed by 130 individuals, that called for "bold and swift action" against Hernandez.

Though the letter itself does not specify expulsion — the House is empowered under the Oregon Constitution to expel members for "disorderly behavior" by a two-thirds majority — Danita Harris, interim director of the Oregon Working Families Party, said that's exactly what the House should do.

"He has continued to deflect and gaslight, which has further eroded the trust of those in the Capitol community and the safety of workers. I feel he can no longer serve effectively," Harris said. "The House Committee on Conduct must expel him from the Legislature, and they must do so swiftly."

Jessica Vega Pederson, whose election as a Multnomah County commissioner in 2016 opened the way for Hernandez to win the House seat, said the matter has caused Hernandez to lose any effectiveness he may have.

"As the former representative of this district, I know that our community in East Portland needs a strong and effective advocate in the Legislature — now more so than ever," she said. "People in our district are really hurting in the wake of COVID-19 and need someone whose focus is getting them the support they need."

Among the organizations supporting the letter were the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, which called on Hernandez last week to resign his seat; Oregon AFL-CIO; NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon; Local 49 and Local 503 of Service Employees International Union; Asian and Pacific American Network of Oregon; and the Oregon farmworkers union PCUN.

Lawyer reads defense

But Hernandez, in a statement read by Salem lawyer Kevin Lafky, said he never touched any women inappropriately and he denied he was ever a risk to anyone in the Capitol.

"I knew this was never true, but it was disseminated in the media, and that became the talking point about me," his statement said.

"After a nine-month investigative process in which I was repeatedly denied any information about those initial allegations against me, we are here to respond to different allegations in a report that finds that I made three women with whom I had consensual relationships uncomfortable during or after those relationships ended.

"The report alleges that I blurred the lines between personal and professional relationships with my consensual partners, and that had a negative impact on their work. Please let me unequivocally say that I made anyone uncomfortable. I am not here to make excuses; I take full responsibility for my actions in making anyone uncomfortable."

Although Hernandez listened in on the hearing, Lafky said he read Hernandez's statement because they were told only one of them could speak.

Hernandez, 33, is a Democrat who was re-elected to a third term from District 47 in East Portland. He won 49.3% in a three-way race Nov. 3; some Democrats backed Ashton Simpson, the Working Families Party nominee, who finished third.

Committee starts

The committee met for 2 1/2 hours Monday night and was scheduled to resume hearings Tuesday.

The committee did conclude that Hernandez's throwing of a cell phone at the woman made her uncomfortable in their relationship, and was "verbally and physically threatening."

The committee has not yet concluded its findings on the woman identified only as Subject 2, and still has yet to review the allegations raised by the other women.

The report by two lawyers from the Portland firm of Jackson Lewis, released Jan. 26, makes no conclusions about whether Hernandez actually violated a House rule that bars sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment. The rule was broadened in 2019 to cover not only the Legislature and staff members, but also anyone doing business with them. Lafky said some of the allegations against Hernandez predate that rule change.

Only the committee, which consists of two Democrats and two Republicans, can recommend action against a member to the full House.

"This is not a criminal proceeding, this is not a civil proceeding," Rep. Ron Noble, a Republican from McMinnville who presided Monday, said. "It is to determine whether he violated the rules of the Legislative Assembly as voted on by the assembly." (The Senate has a separate rule and a separate conduct committee.)

But in their report to the committee, Sarah Ryan and Kira Johal concluded there was evidence to support three of the five allegations they investigated. Jackie Sandmeyer, the interim director of the Legislative Equity Office, said Monday that up to 13 women had contacted her, although only five chose to proceed with the investigation.

Although the report does not name names and masks the identities of the five women, none were legislators or staff members. Hernandez said the three allegations in question were from a lobbyist and aides to two local elected officials, some of whom had relationships with Hernandez that predated his election to the Legislature in 2016.

Dispute over process

Lafky, in the statement he read on Hernandez's behalf, said the investigation into his client's conduct lasted far longer than the 84 days (12 weeks) set out as the standard. Sandmeyer said she did grant a couple of extensions, but Lafky argued with assertions in the investigative report that Hernandez himself caused the delays because of noncooperation. Hernandez did consent to two interviews by the investigators, one in August and the other in January.

When the investigation was announced last spring, House Speaker Tina Kotek stripped Hernandez of his interim committee assignments and barred him from entering the Capitol unless he gave 24-hour notice.

The Portland Democrat did give Hernandez committee assignments for the 2021 session. The Capitol has been closed to the public since March 18, 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers did meet three times in 2020 special sessions that lasted a total of five days, and they met on opening day Jan. 11, but committee meetings such as Monday's proceeding are being conducted via video conference calls.

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