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Capital chatter: A parting shot on sexual harassment?

Brad Avakian, the outgoing commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, implies harassment rampant in Capitol.

Is sexual harassment rampant in the Oregon Capitol? Brad Avakian, the outgoing commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, implies that's the case in a civil rights complaint he filed this week against the Legislature.

Much of the complaint recites past allegations against then-Sen. Jeff Kruse, the Roseburg Republican who was forced from the Legislature because of his reported conduct. But in Avakian's complaint, filed with his own agency, he goes further.

The complaint lists Senate President Peter Courtney, House Speaker Tina Kotek and top legislative staffers as respondents. It claims they "have permitted a generally hostile environment based upon sex, including but not limited to subjecting multiple individuals in the Capitol to unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. Individuals subjected to the hostile environment and discriminatory conduct included legislators, employees, lobbyists, and student interns."

Among Avakian's contentions are that individuals who reported sexual harassment were discouraged from discussing their situation with others and were not informed of "their legal rights and the processes available for exercising those rights."

The complaint states, "Student A, Student B, Employee A and Employee B have requested that this Commissioner's Complaint be filed in order to redress the harm they suffered and to remedy the intolerable conditions that Respondents failed to correct."

A number of questions come to mind. The first is whether this is Avakian's way of getting back at certain fellow Democrats who were less-than-enthusiastic supporters of his bids for higher office. For years, Democrats have been very careful when talking with me about Avakian, not wanting to provoke reprisal.

A former legislator, Avakian ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state — winning the Democratic primary and losing to Republican Dennis Richardson — and for Congress. He also toyed with running for governor.

As state labor commissioner, Avakian has been a liberal's liberal. The politician chosen by voters this year as his successor, Eugene Democrat Val Hoyle, was characterized by some critics as a party hack, because she was the House Democratic leader. However, she likely will be pragmatic and more moderate than Avakian. The job is supposed to be nonpartisan.

Regardless of whether Avakian is grinding his political ax, his complaint raises legitimate issues. The Legislature has been dealing with sexual harassment since at least the 1990s. What progress has been made?

• As the Buehler world turns: Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship is satisfied that Rep. Knute Buehler's legal residence remains in Bend. The Democratic Party of Oregon had filed a complaint with the Secretary of State's Office, contending Buehler was ineligible to continue representing House District 54. The Buehlers are living in a Tualatin apartment while he runs for governor against Kate Brown.

"From my perspective, he is a resident of Deschutes County and temporarily living away, just like many others," Blankenship told me.

After reading about the Democrats' complaint in the Bend Bulletin and receiving a copy of it from the Secretary of State's Office, Blankenship sent a standard form letter to Buehler requesting verification of his residency.

In Oregon, county clerks handle voter registrations and run elections. State law allows county clerks to ask for verification of residence at any time.

Proof of residency can include the address used for utility bills, regular mail and income tax returns, as well as the address for driver's license and vehicle registrations. Blankenship said people often maintain their legal residence in the county while being away for college, military service, wintering in the Southwest or even having a long hospital stay out-of-town.

"It seemed clear that Bend is their residence and they were just temporarily away," Blankenship said of the Buehlers.

• Democrats maintain their stance: Blankenship's decision does not sit well with Democrats.

Molly Woon, the state party's deputy director, sent me this statement: "It is good to know that Rep. Buehler has validly maintained his voter registration in Deschutes County. But as he has repeatedly told the public that he has moved and that he is working nearly full time on his campaign for Governor, we remain concerned that he is not meeting his responsibilities as a State Legislator, for which he is being paid a salary by taxpayers. 

"Buehler needs to show us what loophole in the Oregon Constitution permits him to remain in office while clearly telling the public that he has relocated to Tualatin, 165 miles away from HD 54."

Being a legislator is considered a part-time job, although Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, recently told me it can consume 16 hours a day during legislative sessions.

And as Blankenship noted, it's not uncommon for Oregonians — including legislators — to temporarily relocate.

For example, state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, is building a home in Northern Idaho where he plans to retire after leaving the Legislature this year.

• Getting to know Oregon: Legislators can almost always claim their travels somehow are related to their work.

In his response to Blankenship's inquiry, Buehler said Tualatin was his short-term residence while running for governor and he planned to return to Bend. But he could legitimately argue that his constituents benefited from his temporary exposure to the Portland metro area.

The Oregon House has arranged short-term exchanges between some rural and urban legislators this summer. Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, visited Kotek's Portland district and she is going to Klamath Falls.

For building common understanding, a short visit is helpful but longer is better. Oregonians would be well-served if lawmaker spent a full season living in a part of the state unlike their home district.

Of course, Buehler's ultimate goal is to temporarily relocate to Salem — living in Mahonia Hall, the governor's official residence.

• Buehler's response: Blankenship gave her findings to the Secretary of State's Office.

Buehler's communications director, Monica Wroblewski, had this response: "We're happy this frivolous complaint was quickly dismissed. We appreciate the time and attention given to this matter by the Secretary of State and the County Clerk. It would be great if Brown and her allies would start tackling the important issues facing this state instead Knute."

• Political leftovers: I discussed this kerfuffle in last week's Capital Chatter, eliciting a stern but polite email from Democratic spokeswoman Woon. I stand by what I wrote, but in the interest of fairness, I will give Molly Woon the last words for today. This is what she wrote to me:

"Regarding your write up of our request for an investigation into Rep. Buehler's meeting the residency requirement to serve in the Legislature. 

"You write: 'By that standard, if Buehler is ineligible to serve because he temporarily relocated to Tualatin while maintaining his main residence in Bend, then any legislators would be ineligible if they rent temporary housing in Salem during legislative sessions. That includes some Democrats.'

"In fact, the Oregon Constitution has a specific provision allowing legislators to reside in Salem so they can conduct business on behalf of their constituents. Please see Article IV, 7(a): 'Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this subsection, a person may not be a Senator or Representative if the person at all times during the term of office of the person as a Senator or Representative is not an inhabitant of the district from which the Senator or Representative may be chosen or which the Senator or Representative has been appointed to represent. A person does not lose status as an inhabitant of a district if the person is absent from the district for purposes of business of the Legislative Assembly. 

"The Constitution is very clear on the residency requirement and the exception for conducting business in Salem. I respectfully request a correction. 

"Additionally, you write 'When Democrat Atkins was secretary of state in 2016, the office dismissed a similar complaint from Democrats against Republican legislative candidate Rich Vial, who went on to win election in House District 26.'

"I feel that it is important to point out that residency requirements for candidacy and the residency requirements once elected and sworn into office are not the same. We do not dispute Rep. Buehler's eligibility to run for Governor. We dispute his eligibility to represent the people of HD 54 since he has clearly stated, on more than on occasion, that he does not live in the district. This is in clear violation of the Constitutional requirements of elected state legislators, as pointed out in our letter (to the Secretary of State's Office)."

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.