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Harassment investigation hangs over swearing in of Oregon's 80th legislature

More than a week after the release of a report on sexual harassment in the Oregon Capitol, the fallout continues .

SALEM — Claims that legislative leaders mishandled sexual harassment reports cast a shadow over the Capitol Monday as lawmakers gathered to kick off the 2019 Legislature.

A report by the state's labor bureau Jan. 3 accused leaders of creating a hostile work environment by failing to act appropriately and swiftly on reports of sexual harassment.

The report continued to make waves Monday as lawmakers flocked to the Capitol to take their oath of office and organize before officially convening for five months of work Jan. 22.

On Friday, the state's Bureau of Labor and Industries announced that the Legislature sought to settle the bureau's complaint through confidential mediation.

In a speech on Monday, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, opened with a commitment to improving the work environment and stopping harassment.

"The problem of poor Capitol culture starts with us," said Kotek, beginning a fourth term as speaker. "If anyone is sitting there thinking they're not the problem, I would ask that you catch yourself. We are part of the problem if we aren't modeling best behavior, intervening when we witness inappropriate behavior, or worst of all, engaging in inappropriate behavior."

"It's important for us to remember that we are at the top of the food chain," Kotek said. "Our power and privilege affect everyone who works in this building and who visits this building. As leaders, it is our responsibility to protect and support all of them"

During his session-opening speech Monday, Courtney, a Democrat from Salem who leads the chamber that had several harassment accusations, didn't acknowledge the scandal or discuss efforts to improve workplace culture.

On Friday, the Senate president's 11-year spokesman, Robin Maxey, resigned in the shadow of the BOLI report.

"While a complaint made against me was resolved 44 months ago, the inclusion of hearsay by the Bureau of Labor and Industries in its recent report have proven disruptive at a time when the Legislature is preparing for the important work of a new session," Maxey wrote in his resignation letter.

According to the report, a woman who worked in the Capitol complained in 2015 that Maxey stood too close to her at an event and offered to buy her a beer. The next day, she said, Maxey sent her sexually explicit lyrics to a popular song.

Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson, the body's top lawyer, told her that he was brokering an informal settlement and asked her not to have contact with Maxey, according to the report. Legislative leaders later denied a settlement was under negotiation, the report stated.

But a woman working in Courtney's office resigned with five months' pay, health insurance and a promise not to sue Courtney or the state, after the longtime Senate President learned she was dating a House member, according to the labor bureau's report.

Courtney's treatment of the employee prompted Sen. Shemia Fagan, a Democrat who represents East Portland and Happy Valley, to vote Monday against re-electing him the Senate president.

Fagan said that she and others senators were like members of a board "electing a person to chair the board and steer our organization through a crisis largely of our own making."

"It was recently exposed that, while passing legislation to protect workers, survivors and vulnerable people from Enterprise to Brookings, we have failed to protect the public servants working side by side with us," Fagan wrote.

"The person nominated stands credibly accused of abusing power by a woman who is afraid to come forward," Fagan wrote. "I have no ability to interview her, question witnesses, subpoena documents, or examine the nominee under oath. All I have is her testimony and my values, which follow this presumption — I believe credible accusations by those who have little to gain, against those who have much to lose."

Republicans Brian Boquist of Dallas, and Herman Baertschiger of Grants Pass, who leads Senate Republicans, also voted against Courtney.

State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said she voted for Courtney because she made a promise to colleagues in the Democratic caucus to do so, and that no other candidate stepped forward.

Gelser accused former Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican from Roseburg, of subjecting her to years of unwanted touching. Kruse stepped down last March.

"Within that report were serious allegations about employment practices in the Senate President's Office," Gelser said. "There has been no statement or explanation to the Senate from the Senate president about these allegations as of the writing of this statement. Further, women involved in the BOLI complaint or who have otherwise experienced harassment have told me the tone of the discussion about their experience has been hurtful and dismissive."

She wrote that she didn't think Courtney, first elected Senate president in 2003, condoned harassment or discrimination, but she hoped for "change" in the tone of the discussion and an investigation into the actions of Courtney's office.

She said she requested a caucus meeting to address new concerns about the handling of sexual harassment claims, but the request was denied.

"I hope to see the issue of changing our culture remain front and center until our staff tell us they feel safe, they feel heard, they feel respected and they feel like things are improving," Gelser said.

"Changing our policies and culture with urgency and transparency will be the hardest work of this session," Gelser wrote in her vote explanation. "We must act immediately. Those who serve this institution deserve nothing less."

Gov. Kate Brown told reporters after she was sworn in that Courtney and Kotek appear dedicated to changing the culture of the Capitol.

Asked if Courtney should resign, she hedged and said she had talked to the two leaders.

"They're absolutely committed to making sure we have a state capitol that's harassment free, and there is no discrimination of any type occurring in the building," she said.

"Changing our policies and culture with urgency and transparency will be the hardest work of this session," Gelser wrote in her vote explanation. "We must act immediately. Those who serve this institution deserve nothing less."

Reporters Paris Achen, Claire Withycombe and Aubrey Wieber are with the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.