Oregon Legislature reaches settlement over harassment case
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Legislature will pay $1.1 million to eight victims of sexual harassment and hostile workplace behavior at the state Capitol under a settlement announced Tuesday by the state labor department.
House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, both Democrats, issued a joint statement apologizing to the “women who suffered harm during their time in the Capitol.”
Both were accused in an investigation launched by former Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian of not thoroughly addressing multiple allegations of sexual harassment by Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican from the former timber town of Roseburg, who resigned last year but maintains his innocence.
In addition to the eight victims, a ninth, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, will be paid $26,612 by the Legislature for attorney’s fees and other out-of-pocket expenses. Gelser was the first to publicly accuse Kruse of misconduct, marking the #MeToo movement’s first impact in the Oregon State Capitol. She did not seek a larger settlement, saying she wanted to keep the focus on the other women.
Gelser said in an interview in her Senate office that the settlement “sends a really strong message to Oregonians and to people in this building that sexual harassment is a really big deal. This is a seven-figure settlement that impacts a lot of women, and that demonstrates that we have had a significant problem here.”
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said she’s working hard with a bipartisan group of colleagues to enact recommendations of the Oregon Law Commission to “make the Capitol more inclusive, equitable and accountable.”
At one point, Burdick herself had seen Kruse wrap his arms around Gelser at her desk on the Senate floor and step inappropriately close to her, and reacted by striding up to Kruse and saying: “Get your hands off Sen. Gelser.”
Before the settlement — one of the largest the Bureau of Labor and Industries has brokered — was announced, Courtney took a 10-day medical leave for a flare-up of thyroid eye disease. Spokeswoman Carol Currie said doctors warned the 75-year-old that his condition will worsen if he doesn’t take time to recover properly.
The labor department said its complaint process was politicized and inhibited both sides from participating thoroughly in its investigation. Courtney and Kotek complained that they were not questioned by labor department investigators. The two legislative leaders had resisted handing over documents from the Legislature to Avakian for the investigation last year. Avakian went to court, which compelled Courtney and Kotek to turn over the documents.
Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who replaced Avakian in January, said the settlement provides justice for the victims, accountability for the Legislature, and the establishment of a system to better respond to future workplace complaints.
“This settlement ensures that the injured parties have their harms addressed,” Hoyle said. “It puts in place requirements and processes that, when fully implemented, will improve the Capitol as a workplace and will provide appropriate support to workers who may have issues in the future.”
The settlement calls for the Legislature to pay a combined $1.1 million in non-economic damages to eight people who worked at the Capitol in a variety of roles but were not elected officials. The largest individual damages award is $415,000. The labor commission said it won’t release the names of the eight in order to protect their privacy.
All aggrieved parties involved in this settlement agreed to release the Legislature of any future claims or litigation, including a lawsuit that was filed last month by two former Kruse interns against Kruse, the Legislature, Courtney and others, seeking millions of dollars in damages, the labor commission said.
The Legislature must hire an outside attorney, subject to labor commission review and input, to handle any complaints filed until lawmakers establish an Equity Office to handle complaints, as recommended by the Oregon Law Commission.
Gelser, who has become a leading advocate against workplace harassment, applauded the terms of the settlement but said she worries her fellow lawmakers will “decide that this situation is now resolved with a check.”
Gelser expressed regret that there were no serious repercussions for the state’s Legislative Counsel or other top leaders implicated in the scandal. She added the Legislature still needs to work to regain the trust of the public and prove that legislators are willing to address these issues head-on.
“We may have a settlement, but we also see that the institutions that safeguard power are still very, very strong,” she said. “If we have the same institutions with the same leadership and the same culture, we can’t really expect a change.”