Oregon Governor Urges Lawmaker to Resign Over Reports of Unwanted Touching

by | February 7, 2018

By Gordon R. Friedman

Sen. Jeff Kruse not only subjected two female senators to unwanted touching, he groped or gave lingering hugs to many other women working at the Oregon Capitol, an independent investigator concluded in a damning report released Tuesday.

Kruse's actions created a hostile workplace, the investigator said. And the fact his conduct was widely known yet went unchecked left women less powerful than he was to suffer, certain their complaints would go nowhere, she wrote.

The investigator, Dian Rubanoff, an employment law attorney in private practice, found that Kruse engaged in a "longstanding pattern of unwelcome physical contact" with women at the Capitol and that he was, until 2017, "oblivious" to the effects of his actions. Kruse's unwanted behaviors "escalated" after legislative officials warned him to stop, the investigator concluded.

A few instances of Kruse's close contact with female lawmakers were recorded on official Legislative videos of Senate floor sessions and committee meetings.

The report revealed new instances of what it said was misconduct by Kruse against a member of the House, a third female senator, two law students who used to work for him, Republican and non-partisan staffers, a former legislative aide and a lobbyist. Those women were not named in the report.

One of the law students told the investigator that the senator would call her "little girl" and tell her she was "sexy" while at work in the Capitol. She also said Kruse would come up behind her, put his hands on her shoulder and rest his head on hers. The woman told the investigator Kruse subjected her to "a lot of hugging" and would grab her and pull her in to a tight hug at least twice per week.

The law student used normal social cues to tell Kruse she did not accept his conduct, the report said, but Kruse did not pick up on it. The student told the investigator she did not speak up about the harassment because she was "terrified" how it might affect her career.

Another law student who worked for Kruse told the investigator the senator would tightly hug her or put his hands on her hips when they were near each other. Kruse's fingers would occasionally slide over the bottoms of her breasts while he hugged her, the student reported. The student "felt trapped" by Kruse's conduct, the report said.

A lobbyist told the investigator that Kruse "cupped her buttocks" when the two met for a photo-op in Gov. Kate Brown's office in 2017. The lobbyist said she did not initially make a complaint about Kruse because she worried it could damage her career, the report said.

A non-partisan committee staffer told the investigator that Kruse once kissed her on the cheek, close to her mouth, and that he would often hug her or touch his head to hers. Multiple staffers in the Senate Republicans caucus office told the investigator that Kruse had grabbed them and pulled them in or wrapped his arms around them.

Two Democratic Oregon senators, Sara Gelser of Corvallis and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Portland, went public last fall with allegations Kruse subjected them to unwanted touching and inappropriate close contact.

The report details new allegations of misconduct by two other elected lawmakers -- one in the House and one in the Senate. Kruse was "very physical" with the representative, the report said. He would grab her hands when they talked and pull her in to the point she felt trapped, it said.

The report also detailed Kruse's treatment of a new female Democratic senator during lawmakers' 2017 workplace harassment training session. According to the report, Kruse gave her a hug, pulled her in closely and joked that his hug may violate the workplace conduct rules. Only one woman joined the Senate that year: Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie. She was not immediately available for comment Tuesday evening.

Many Capitol staff members who said Kruse touched them or made them uncomfortable said they did not report his conduct or confront him, the report said. It said those women explained that staffers are expected to show deference to elected lawmakers and Kruse's reputation for touching women seemed well-known and widely accepted at the Capitol.

The report is slated to be considered by the Senate Conduct Committee, a four-member panel which has scheduled a public hearing to review her investigation on Feb. 22.

Kruse has acknowledged that he touched women in the Capitol but said the contact was not sexual in nature. He said prior to the report going public that he would not resign, despite public statements from several lawmakers, most of them Republicans, that he should leave office.

He was not available for comment Tuesday. He told The Oregonian/OregonLive in October, "I have never done anything that I believe anybody could portray as being sexual."

Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, declined to comment. Winters' spokeswoman, Tayleranne Gillespie, said in a statement, "At this time, we are reviewing the report. The process is still ongoing, and will continue with the Senate Conduct Committee meeting."

Jonathan Lockwood, who was the spokesman for the Senate Republicans in 2017, said, "The fact that state Sen. Jeff Kruse has not resigned is a disgrace to the Republican Party. It is a moral outrage."

The governor called on Kruse to resign in a statement released Tuesday evening. "Senator Kruse's behavior is not acceptable in the Capitol or any workplace, and he should step down," Brown said.

House Speaker Tina Kotek also issued a statement calling on Kruse to resign. "The people of Oregon and the women who work in the Capitol deserve better. He should resign, and if he chooses not to, the Senate should expel him," Kotek said.

Rubanoff wrote in her report that Kruse cooperated with the investigation and did not deny most of the accusations against him. Instead, he told her he had "no recollection" of most of the alleged misdeeds. Kruse also said he did not take seriously warnings to stop touching women at the Capitol, according to Rubanoff's report, and only began to realize his behavior was inappropriate after he attended an hour of counseling in December.

Kruse told the investigator that he believed his behavior was "instinctual" and that although he wanted to change, "It's not easy to change when you have been doing something for 67 years."

Allegations first surfaced against Kruse in October, amid the #MeToo movement, when women across the nation began to speak publicly about sexual harassment by politicians, members of the news media and other powerful figures.

Gelser tweeted October 16 that a member of the Senate Republican Caucus had groped "female members and staff" at the Capitol. That evening, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, relieved Kruse of his committee assignments, a drastic form of discipline that effectively keeps him from shaping legislation.

Gelser told The Oregonian/OregonLive October 23 that Kruse had sexually harassed her for years and not stopped despite warnings by legislative officials. She later said in a formal complaint that Kruse had touched her breast and thigh while both were working in the Capitol. She also alleged that Kruse sexually harassed up to 15 other women who worked at the Capitol and called for senators to expel Kruse from their chamber.

Gelser was later included in Time Magazine's Person of the Year feature, which focused on "silence breakers" who spoke out about sexual harassment. She was not available for comment Tuesday.

Steiner Hayward went public with allegations against Kruse in November, saying in a formal complaint that he gave her inappropriately close hugs and sat so close to her that he made her uncomfortable. Steiner Hayward declined to comment Tuesday.

The senators' complaints sparked Rubanoff's investigation -- the first time in memory the Legislature's formal sexual harassment reporting policy and conduct committee process has been invoked.

If the conduct committee finds Rubanoff's investigation has merit, it can recommend the full Senate discipline Kruse by reprimand, censure or expulsion. If the committee makes such a recommendation, the Senate must vote on discipline the next time it meets. Discipline requires a two-thirds majority, and Democrats are three vote shy of that margin.

Rubanoff wrote in her report that she worries that women may feel it is futile to speak up about sexual harassment if Kruse does not face "meaningful consequences."

(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)