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Capital Chatter: Putting people over institutions

Mercy Corps' implosion holds lessons for the leadership of the Oregon Legislature.

The implosion of a respected international humanitarian organization based in Oregon holds lessons for the Oregon Capitol.

I've been thinking about that correlation for weeks, culminating in observations from a legislative committee discussion on Wednesday.

In early October, The Oregonian published the results of a 10-month investigation. The story began:

"Executives of Portland-based Mercy Corps knew co-founder Ellsworth Culver had been credibly accused by his daughter of serial sexual abuse but allowed him to continue at the renowned international relief agency in a top role for more than a decade.

"The $471-million-a-year charity twice rebuffed Culver's daughter, Tania Culver Humphrey — 25 years ago when she first detailed her allegations to Mercy Corps officials and then again last year when she asked them to reexamine how they handled the initial review."

The newspaper's reporting underscores the power of journalism: Mercy Corps employees rebelled. They were outraged. They demanded more than a heartfelt-but-belated apology by CEO Neal Keny-Guyer and the removal of the organization's photos and tributes honoring Ellsworth Culver. They forced the resignation of Keny-Guyer. Employees used chalk to write messages of support to Humphrey on the sidewalk outside their downtown headquarters. When she came to view the messages, workers spontaneously spilled from the building to embrace her.

Mercy Corps took responsibility. Finally. But having waited so long, it came at even greater cost.

I will be sad if Mercy Corps' past inactions ultimately kill an organization that did so much good around the globe. But no institution is more important than achieving justice, truth and accountability for an individual.

That lesson has not been fully learned by the Oregon Legislature's leadership, who have their own unresolved scandal — that of sexual harassment.

I am not comparing the deeds — the sexual harassment alleged against now ousted-Sen. Jeff Kruse but also others through the decades with the sexual abuse that Ellsworth Culver committed against his daughter and allegedly one of her friends.

Rather, the comparison is in the response — seemingly prioritizing the preservation of institutional and leadership reputations and reacting with legalise and procedure instead of empathy and support.

Justice can never be achieved if the institution is more important than the person, which raises the question of whether legislative leaders' efforts to change the Capitol culture ever can be successful. Many people who work in the Capitol — from legislators to lobbyists — have their doubts but privately have told me they worry about speaking freely.

Just as Gov. Kate Brown is CEO of Oregon, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek are co-CEOs of the Legislature. Like many executives, they advanced because of their technical skills – in this case, political adroitness – not their managerial and human resources expertise. They have relied on the Legislature's administrative and human resources staff to stay on top of those issues. Bad move.

For some members of the Joint Committee on Legislative Administration, it was discomforting this week to hear that some legislative personnel rules don't match state and federal regulations. More than discomforting, that misalignment should alarmi to all Oregonians, especially legislative employees. (Side question: What else is amiss?)

The good news, if any, is that legislators on the committee might finally recognize the burden that having differing state and federal regulations — such as for determining time limits for family and medical leaves — creates for employers.

The Oregon Legislature also has been struggling to comply with its state pay equity law. In the past, if a legislator had two aides, only one could get vacation pay. Salaries varied wildly for legislative aides as long they stayed within legislators' budgets. Some lawmakers awarded bonuses; others did not.

Pay equity can take into account such factors as duties, education and experience, but those definitions are as subjective as objective. As Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. noted this week, the Legislature's attempts to achieve pay equity have created a lot of grumbling so far.

Jessica Knieling was been brought in from the state Department of Administrative Services to serve as interim human resources director. Representatives from the legislative agencies and the Democratic and Republican leadership offices have been meeting weekly with her to examine the HR policies and recommend updates.

Meanwhile, the issue of sexual harassment hangs over the Legislature, despite its creation of new policies and an expensive agreement with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries.

There has yet to be reconciliation. There has yet to be across-the-board acceptance of responsibility by legislative leadership — Democrats and Republicans. These issues are not new. Generations of women and probably some men were expected to put up and shut up, and the sexual harassment occurred in all three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial.

Legislators, staff members, lobbyists and others who regularly interact in the Capitol — including other journalists and I — had a few hours' training on preventing sexual harassment and maintaining a respectful workplace. That barely scratched the surface of a potentially toxic workplace climate where the typical job issues are intensified by inherent power dynamics and the personal and partisan politics.

Knieling told me 42 cases have been brought under the old Rule 27, on workplace standards of conduct, since she arrived in March, and 20 have been resolved. She expects the Legislature's Joint Committee on Conduct will meet during Legislative Days in November.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to file complaints against one another and sometimes staff. Staff have raised issues. The resulting investigative reports by outside lawyers sometimes seem to contradict each other and appear incomplete or inappropriately judgmental. I was going to try to explain all this in a column, but it is so complicated and back-and-forth that even I get lost.

I'm left with these questions: Even if everyone has good intentions and no one acts out of selfish interests or political motives, do legislative leaders and administrators realize how much work needs to be done? If so, will this be too big for the Oregon Legislature?

As for Mercy Corps, it has hired an extremely well-qualified international organization, Vestry Laight, to independently investigate "what steps were taken in 2018 after Tania Culver Humphrey and her husband asked Mercy Corps to re-examine its 1993 investigation into her abuse."

Alissa Keny-Guyer, who is one of the kindest people I have met at the Capitol and whose husband is the now-former CEO of Mercy Corps, is a state representative from Portland. In mid-October after he resigned, she sent this note to constituents:

"The pain and injustice that Tania Culver Humphrey has endured, first by her father's abuse, and then by the multiple people and systems that failed her, is shocking and heartbreaking.

"It's taken me several days to articulate the shock and horror I feel at the horrendous experiences and trauma that Tania has suffered.

"I also know that the shock and horror I feel is nothing compared to the pain that Tania, her family, and friends have carried with them for decades. What happened to her at every level is heartbreaking and wrong. Her wounds are deep and are shared by far too many survivors. Her resilience and courage are a beacon of light to inspire survivors everywhere to share their stories — and make sure they are heard.

"I share my husband Neal's profound sorrow and commitment to promote healing. My love goes out to Tania, her family and friends, Mercy Corps team members, and all who have been impacted by this tragedy."

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.