SALEM — Oregon’s outgoing labor commissioner alleges that top legislative officials have allowed a hostile work environment to fester at the state capitol.
Brad Avakian, a Democrat, filed a formal labor complaint Wednesday, Aug. 1, months after the rise of the #MeToo movement and an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against a state senator from Roseburg.
Avakian claims top legislative officials “have denied multiple individuals full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of the Capitol based on their sex, and that (Sen.) Jeff Kruse aided and abetted Respondents in these unlawful practices.”
Kruse resigned in March after an outside investigator found he repeatedly subjected women in the Capitol, including fellow lawmakers, to unwanted touching despite warnings from legislative officials to stop.
The complaint was filed at the request of two student interns and two employees of the Legislature who reported sexual harassment.
The complaint states that they requested the commissioner’s complaint “in order to redress the harm they suffered and to remedy the intolerable conditions that Respondents have failed to correct.”
The complaint names Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, D-Portland and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who co-chair the Legislative Administration Committee, which oversees personnel administration and “controls all space and facilities within the Capitol.”
The speaker of the house said in a statement that she took all complaints “seriously.”
“As a woman and person in a position of leadership, I have absolutely taken every complaint that was brought to my attention seriously,” Kotek said in a written statement. “We must do better to change the culture in the Capitol and I am 100 percent committed to doing so.”
Courtney, the senate president, echoed the need for improvement in a statement.
“We take every complaint seriously,” Courtney said. “I encourage anyone with a complaint to come forward. We must continue to do better.”
Avakian’s complaint is against the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Administration Committee, but Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson and Lore Christopher, the state’s employee services manager, were also identified in the text of the complaint.
“Other than saying that the Legislature is going to fully and transparently participate in the commissioner’s process, I’m not at this point going to make any substantive comments,” Johnson said. “This is something we just learned about earlier today and at this point any substantive comments would be premature.”
Christopher could not be immediately reached for comment late Wednesday. Another employee said Christopher was out of the office this week.
The allegations against Kruse were reported privately to human resources officials in 2016 before they came to light publicly in October. Avakian alleges that legislative officials did not act quickly enough to prevent further misconduct or protect employees from harassment.
“By at least as early as March 2016, Respondents knew or should have known of Senator Kruse’s conduct and the broader sexually hostile environment in the Capitol, but did not take immediate and appropriate action to correct his conduct or otherwise protect individuals from the hostile environment,” the complaint states, adding that after the initial report, that the respondents allowed two student interns to be placed to work in Kruse’s office.
Kruse, reached Wednesday evening and briefed on the complaint’s allegations that he aided and abetted the Legislature in unlawful practices that created a hostile work environment, said he did “not know what (Avakian) is talking about.”
When a reporter explained that the complaint restated the allegations that Kruse repeatedly touched women at work inappropriately despite being told to stop, Kruse said that “there’s maybe a morsel of truth in that but not much,” and maintained he had been denied “due process.”
The independent investigator commissioned to investigate the allegations interviewed Kruse for her report, public records show. Members of both parties called for his resignation after the report’s publication. The report found a “pattern” of unwanted touching by Kruse, which included reports of groping, prolonged hugs and other actions.
Avakian also claims that legislative officials created a hostile work environment in their handling of allegations of inappropriate conduct by two other male lawmakers and two unnamed male employees of the Legislature.
In July 2017, Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, was accused of creating a list of lobbyists ranking them by their attractiveness, a claim that a human resources investigation did not find evidence to support. Hernandez himself had asked legislative officials to conduct an inquiry into the claims against him.
According to Avakian’s complaint, Johnson “stated it appeared the allegation of a list was ‘invented’ by a disgruntled lobbyist.”
In late October 2017, two informal complaints of “inappropriate conduct” by Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, came to light, concerning incidents in 2013 and 2015. According to the complaint, Johnson said that one incident was “a very minor matter,” and another involving off-color jokes was a “low level” complaint.
According to reporting by The Oregonian last year, Gomberg apologized and the issue was resolved to the satisfaction of the complainants.
The complaint also mentions two allegations against two non-elected employees of the Legislature.
According to the complaint, a female legislative employee was told not to discuss a complaint she made against a male legislative intern who, before either worked in the state capitol, she said had sexually assaulted her and one of her acquaintances.
While in the Capitol, the male employee allegedly asked her questions about her current sexual relationship with another person, which the female employee subsequently reported.
Johnson told that female employee that “if she talked about her claims, it could be seen as defamation,” the complaint states. The complaint also alleges she was not informed, as promised, before the alleged harasser returned to work in the Capitol again.
And finally, the complaint also claims that another female legislative employee accused Courtney’s communications director of unwanted advances in 2015.
At an event, the complaint alleges, communications director allegedly offered to buy her a beer, and stood so close he was touching the side of her body. She turned down the offer and moved across the bar, but he followed her and she continued to decline the offer, according to the complaint.
The female employee then reported that the communications director “sent (her) the lyrics to a song that she considered to be sexually lewd via Facebook message.”
Johnson told her that he was “brokering an informal settlement” between her and the communications director, that she was not permitted to have contact with him, and she should not speak about her complaint to anyone, Avakian’s complaint states.
The communications director is not named in the complaint, and Courtney’s chief of staff said in a text message that she could not address any of the allegations in the complaint.
A special work group is convening this year discuss sexual harassment at the capitol and how to improve working conditions there.