In Sexual Harassment Probe of Oregon Capitol, Lawmakers Accused of Ignoring Subpoenas
By Gordon R. Friedman
In an unprecedented court filing Wednesday, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian accused top legislative officials of ignoring subpoenas issued by his agency in its investigation of sexual harassment at the Oregon Capitol.
The filings seek contempt of court rulings and $1,000 a day fines against Senate President Peter Courtney, House Speaker Tina Kotek, Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters and nine others who Avakian accuses of disregarding subpoenas. A contempt finding can carry a sanction of jail time.
The subpoenas were necessary because Avakian has reason to believe they would protect key documents from "imminent destruction," the filing states.
It is the first time in memory that the Bureau of Labor and Industries has sought contempt rulings, said spokeswoman Christine Lewis.
Through a private attorney, Edward Harnden, legislative officials subpoenaed by the bureau all declined to turn over requested records and sit for interviews.
They argued its demand for information was overly broad, and said compliance would require them to break pledges of confidentiality made to the people who reported harassment.
Representatives for Courtney, Kotek and Winters on Thursday directed questions to Harnden, who said he is confident a judge will find no wrongdoing by members of the Legislature. Avakian is overstepping his authority "and he knows it," Harnden said.
The judge in the case, Judge Stephen Bushong of Multnomah County, set a hearing for Nov. 19 to consider Avakian's arguments.
In a rebuke of his fellow Democrats, Avakian in August accused Courtney, Kotek and the others of covering up a culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol when he filed a complaint with his own Bureau of Labor and Industries.
That set in motion a civil rights investigation, under which the subpoenas were issued. Rather than investigate his own complaint, Avakian instructed his civil rights attorneys to carry out the investigation.
In his complaint, Avakian charged that Kotek, Courtney and officials including Dexter Johnson, the Legislature's attorney, and Lore Christopher, its human resources director, failed to stop sexual harassment by then-Sen. Jeff Kruse despite longstanding complaints against him.
A legislative investigation found Kruse, a Roseburg Republican, had sexually harassed or groped many women at the Capitol -- including fellow senators, a lobbyist and two interns. Kruse resigned in March after 26 years in office.
Avakian was not immediately available for comment Thursday, said Lewis, his spokeswoman. The investigation of sexual harassment at the Capitol he prompted will likely be Avakian's last major case before he leaves office next year.
His bureau's request for contempt rulings and fines demonstrate Avakian's determination to get answers, even if from lawmakers who were once political allies.
That Courtney, Kotek and others disregarded the subpoenas did not come as a surprise, the documents show. In response to the subpoenas, Harnden, the Legislature's attorney, turned over publicly available documents. But declined to provide to other records, saying it would publicly expose those who complained about Kruse after they were promised confidentiality.
Lawmakers have argued they are exempt from labor laws that govern other employers and are not susceptible to the labor commissioner's investigatory powers.
Avakian responded tersely.
He wrote that the legislators "are not above the law and their conduct is not beyond all scrutiny."
(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)