By Gordon R. Friedman
Sen. Jeff Kruse filed resignation papers Thursday, capping a months-long sexual harassment scandal by agreeing to leave the Legislature after 22 years.
The Roseburg Republican's resignation is not effective until March 15, which would allow him to serve out the remainder of the legislative session now underway.
His action came days after an investigator concluded he had sexually harassed or groped multiple women in the Oregon Capitol over several years and did not stop despite warnings. The investigator found that he escalated his harassing conduct after being told not to touch women at work.
Until he announced his resignation, Kruse had been defiant, saying he would not leave office and instead would challenge the investigator's findings. Still, he had been under intense pressure to resign from Democratic officials and some Republicans.
Kruse, 66, maintained his innocence in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
"I continue to deny these allegations and I regret that I will not have the opportunity to defend myself before the Senate Conduct Committee," Kruse said. "However, today I tender my resignation so my colleagues may focus on serving Oregonians without distraction and my constituents may receive the fullest representation they are due."
Kruse had for months been serving in the Legislature without any committee assignments -- hampering his ability to shape legislation -- a punishment handed down by Senate President Peter Courtney because of the harassment allegations and Kruse's persistent smoking in his Capitol office.
Read the document: Sen. Jeff Kruse's resignation letter
Courtney, a Salem Democrat, released a statement Thursday calling Kruse's stepping down "the right decision."
Courtney said, "The report of the independent investigator released earlier this week made it clear that his inappropriate conduct went far beyond" what two of Kruse's accusers, Senate Democrats Sara Gelser and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, had outlined in formal written complaints.
The Senate president said he had been working with Senate Republican leaders since the release of the investigation to "secure" Kruse's resignation.
"While Senator Kruse's resignation ends a difficult chapter for the Legislature, we cannot allow it to end this discussion," Courtney said. "We owe it to the courageous women who came forward to seize this moment."
Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, struck a different tone. She said of Kruse in a statement Thursday, "I want to thank him for his 22 years of service to Oregon. He has been a true advocate for his district and rural Oregon. As we move forward, we must work to provide a safe work environment for all."
Steiner Hayward, one of Kruse's accusers, said in a statement that the senator's resignation is "long overdue" and she hopes the investigation into his conduct will encourage other women to speak up about harassment.
"His resignation will allow the many victims identified through the investigation to begin their healing, the Senate to move forward with the people's business and his constituents to once again have representation in the Legislature," said Steiner Hayward, a Portland Democrat.
Gelser said she is unhappy that Kruse is delaying his exit. "I believe the resignation should have been immediate," Gelser said in a phone interview. House Speaker Tina Kotek tweeted that Kruse's delayed resignation is "exactly what's wrong with the power dynamic that exists at the Capitol."
Investigator and private employment law attorney Dian Rubanoff concluded that Kruse subjected at least 10 women to tight, lingering hugs and other inappropriate touching. Many told Rubanoff they were horrified by his conduct but felt they had to endure it out of deference to a powerful, tenured lawmaker. They also said they did not report the harassment because it was widely known and tolerated in the Capitol and they feared speaking up would damage their careers.
Rubanoffs 51-page report outlined how Kruse had called a law student who worked for him "sexy" and "little girl," would grab and tightly hug other Republican and non-partisan staffers to the point they felt trapped, had cupped the buttocks of a female lobbyist during a photo-op in the governor's office, kissed a staffer on the cheek and close to her mouth, and inappropriately touched three female senators and a state representative. Rubanoff based her report on interviews with victims and witnesses, videos and photographs and found the accusers credible. Kruse did not deny most of the accusations, and instead said he did not recall the incidents.
Gelser praised those women, most of whom who were not named in the report, for speaking to the investigator about the harassment they endured. "I don't think people appreciate how brave those women were," she said, adding that members of the Legislature ought to improve the Capitol's workplace harassment rules.
In October, The Oregonian/OregonLive was the first news outlet to report that Courtney, the Senate president, removed Kruse from his committee assignments because he'd been accused of inappropriate touching. The discipline came days after Gelser, Kruse's first accuser, posted a vague accusation of groping by a Senate Republican on Twitter. Kruse has not responded to requests for comment from The Oregonian/OregonLive since shortly after that story broke.
Gelser later confirmed to The Oregonian/OregonLive that her tweet referenced Kruse. She said he sexually harassed her for years and did not stop despite officials' warnings after her complaints. Gelser later filed a formal complaint against Kruse. So did Steiner Hayward. Their complains sparked the formal investigation.
By delaying his resignation until the end of the lawmaking session, Kruse will continue receiving his base pay and $142 per diem. He is also a vested member of the Public Employees Retirement System and will receive retirement benefits for his years spent in office.
Kruse, a farmer by trade, first joined the Legislature in 1996. His resignation Thursday is actually the second time he has quit the Legislature. The first came in 2004 when he resigned from the House because he no longer lived in the district he represented.
The last time an Oregon lawmaker resigned in disgrace was in 2005. That year, Dan Doyle, a Salem Republican, resigned after he was found to have misused tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal expenses. And Kelley Wirth, a Corvallis Democrat, resigned after police found meth in her car after a crash near the Capitol.
Kruse said in his resignation statement Thursday, "For civil rights to be meaningful, there must be civil rights for all people, including the right to fundamental fairness for persons accused of harassment."
The commissioners of the five counties Kruse's district overlaps must soon select his replacement from a group of nominees chosen by local Republican Party officials. The commissioners are required to appoint a Republican to replace Kruse.
In his resignation statement, Kruse said he is "very proud" of the bills he authored affecting health care and education policy, and said he is looking forward to returning to Roseburg, where he still owns a working farm.
"Serving the people of Curry and portions of Coos, Douglas, Josephine and Jackson counties for the past 22 years has been the greatest honor of my life," he said.
(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)