After Sexual Harassment Scandal, Oregon Legislature Reaches $1.3M Settlement
By Hillary Borrud
Oregon legislative leaders announced Tuesday afternoon that they have signed a $1.3 million settlement with state labor regulators and nine women who experienced sexual harassment at the Capitol.
The women will receive $1.1 million and the Legislature will pay the Bureau of Labor and Industries $200,000 to cover the agency's legal costs, the settlement says.
As part of the deal, the women agreed not to pursue legal action against the Legislature and other named defendants. The labor agency also agreed not to pursue its case against the Legislature. For its part, the Legislature agreed to implement a list of reforms to make the Capitol a safer place to work, including adopting a definition of harassment with specific examples and using an independent lawyer -- rather than the Legislature's lawyers and human resources staff -- to handle any discrimination and harassment complaints until it creates a new Equity Office.
Last summer, then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian took the unusual step of filing a complaint against the Legislature on behalf of women who had experienced harassment.
The complaint centered on former Sen. Jeff Kruse's long-running practice of groping and verbally harassing women in the Capitol, including lawmakers, a lobbyist and interns working in his office. It also brought to light alleged bad behavior by others in the Legislature including Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis who reportedly made inappropriately sexual comments to young women staffers.
But its central claim was that legislative leaders and other powerful people in the Capitol failed to take adequate action to stop sexual harassment. Avakian alleged that top legislative lawyer Dexter Johnson and human resources chief Lore Christopher instructed women not to tell anyone about sexual harassment by Kruse and two other men and falsely told victims of harassment that they lacked standing to sue.
The agreement signed on Tuesday settles both the Bureau of Labor and Industries case and a $6.7 million lawsuit filed in February by two former interns for former Kruse, a Roseburg Republican. Anne Montgomery and Adrianna Martin-Wyatt, who worked in Kruse's office in 2016 and 2017, said Kruse subjected them to repeated groping and sexual comments.
Specifically, Montgomery alleged that Kruse asked her about her and her husband's sex life, put his hands on her thighs, repeatedly hugged her and subjected her to sexual banter. Martin-Wyatt said Kruse wrapped his arms around her, slid his arms crosswise down her body and over her breasts, touched her hips, put his arms on her shoulders and talked to her nose-to-nose.
Martin-Wyatt told The Oregonian/OregonLive many people worked to "initiate this culture change" but said she owes a special debt of gratitude to Avakian, the former labor commissioner, and his civil rights investigators.
"It is my sincere belief that it was their integrity in choosing courage over comfort, choosing what was right over what was fast or easy, and choosing to practice their principles rather than just professing them that made a difference," Martin-Wyatt said.
Charese Rohny, the lawyer for the two former interns, credited Sen. Sara Gelser and other complainants for getting the Legislature to address the problem.
"Three years ago, Sen. Sara Gelser became a beacon for women when she spoke out and made her first harassment complaint against Sen. Jeff Kruse," Rohny wrote in a press release. "As she learned the extent of the problem, she has remained steadfast in her conviction to speak out."
"It has taken the courage of all the women who have chosen to not remain silent and to be candid with the press in order to shed a bright light on what has been happening to them at our Capitol."
Kruse has repeatedly denied he treated women inappropriately, including in an interview with The News-Review in Roseburg last month.
In a joint statement, Kotek and Courtney apologized to the women.
"On behalf of the Oregon Legislature, we sincerely apologize to the women who suffered harm during their time in the Capitol," they wrote in a press release statement. "Everyone working in or visiting the State Capitol deserves to feel safe and respected. We remain committed to improving the Capitol's workplace culture and are working hard to implement that change during the ongoing legislative session, following the recommendations of the Oregon Law Commission."
In a concession to the Legislature, the settlement document states that Avakian's complaint process "was politicized in a manner that inhibited both sides from participating fully in the investigation." Avakian's term has since ended and new Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle pledged in the settlement to strengthen "an atmosphere of impartiality, fairness and trust to all who participate in agency investigatory processes."
At the same time, Hoyle pointed out the women who endured harassment and were allegedly discouraged from talking publicly about it only received compensation as a result of Avakian's case, because too much time had passed for some of them to sue.
"Those victims could only have had their harms addressed through a BOLI Commissioner's complaint," Hoyle said in a statement. "I'm pleased that we were able to provide them access to justice."
The $1.1 million will be split among the women as follows:
--Montgomery, the former intern: $415,000
--Martin-Wyatt, the other former intern: $290,000
--Gelser, to cover her attorney fees and other costs of complying with BOLI's investigation: $26,613
--Audrey Mechling, a former legislative staffer, $10,000 according to KGW
--$380,000 split in an undisclosed manner among the remaining five women.
The list of reforms the Legislature agreed to implement is long. In addition to creating a new Equity Office to handle complaints, lawmakers agreed to conduct regular surveys of the workplace climate in the Capitol and conduct exit interviews of all interns, pages and volunteers. The Legislature will also mandate that supervisors in the Capitol report all non-confidential complaints and implement recommendations by the Oregon Law Commission to protect reporters, complainants and respondents.
Reporter Gordon R. Friedman contributed to this report.
(c)2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)