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Capital Chatter: Hernandez won't resign

Was it an appropriate response to allegations of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment at the Oregon State Capitol? Was it politics?

While much of Oregon was fixated on COVID-19, a rare occurrence unfolded in legislative politics this week. House Speaker Tina Kotek urged one of her fellow Portland Democrats to resign.

Was it an appropriate response to allegations of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment at the Oregon State Capitol? Was it politics? Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, implies the latter and told me on Thursday that he has no intention of resigning.

Having covered sexual harassment and related issues for decades, I've found that women, and men, who reveal harassment should be believed unless an independent, objective and thorough investigation unquestionably proves otherwise. It's a copout to shrug one's shoulders and say a situation is unresolvable because it's "she said, he said."

In Hernandez's case, that investigation is just starting.

On Monday, the bipartisan House Conduct Committee voted unanimously to order Hernandez not to have contact with several women and for him to provide advance notice before coming to the Capitol, although the building currently is closed to the public.

"Interim measures are not intended to be punitive. They are not a form of punishment." said committee co-chair Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene. "They really are intended to make sure the investigation can proceed without incidents."

An outside investigator on contract with the Legislature, lawyer Sarah Ryan, agreed that the interim measures were appropriate. "I'm not prejudging the outcome of my investigation at all," Ryan told the committee.

Ryan said she had interviewed one complainant, who was fearful of retaliation, but had not yet talked with the second complainant, who reportedly was worried about her safety. Five additional women have raised concerns but have not filed formal complaints.

A few hours after the hearing, Kotek delivered her judgment: "I am deeply concerned that members of the broader Capitol community feel unsafe or subject to retaliation by Rep. Hernandez. I want those individuals to know they did the right thing by coming forward, and I am grateful to the House Conduct Committee for taking swift action to impose the measures they deemed necessary to address immediate safety concerns.

"I supported Rep. Hernandez's announcement last month that he would be taking a leave of absence from his duties to seek guidance and focus on his physical and emotional health, and removed his committee assignments to facilitate that leave. The House Conduct Committee's action today is a very serious development. I believe Rep. Hernandez should resign from the Legislature and focus completely on getting the support he needs."

Hernandez told me that he learned of allegations, but was not given the details, when interim Legislative Equity Officer Jackie Sandmeyer, contacted him Monday morning about the afternoon committee hearing. He chose not to participate in the hearing, which was conducted by videoconference.

Kotek's office told me that it was Hernandez's decision to take a leave of absence. He disputes that, saying Kotek and House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner of Portland pushed him to do so.

Kotek said she removed Hernandez from his committee assignments because he was on leave.

Hernandez said he took two weeks off but then returned to his legislative duties, including participating in workgroups and the Democratic House Caucus teleconferences. "Them asserting that I am now or have recently still been on leave is just plain false," he said.

I asked Kotek's office why she thought he should resign before the investigation was completed. The staff referred me to her statement, which I quoted above.

In the same vein, I asked Hernandez what statement he had. His response:

"First and foremost, I do take full responsibility for all my words and actions, period. I am also more than willing to take any responsibility if the committee or I can ever find out who I wronged or how I wronged them. My conscience and the honor of the office I hold demand this. I am human and make mistakes too and if I can simply know how or to whom I have caused any discomfort, I will apologize and remedy it.

"It would be so much easier for my life and my family's life to resign right now, but quitting now diminishes justice and risks ending the independent investigation. Questions like: Is there still a presumption of innocence? Are accusations automatic convictions, in a rule of law society? Is the Legislature a place where due process matters or where the politics of cancel culture matter more? These will all go unanswered.

"Regardless of the personal pain that this organized campaign, designed to force me out of office, has caused: I will continue to use this process and my life to fight for justice and will do so not just for me but all Oregonians including my faceless accusers and the powerful enemies I unfortunately seem to have made for myself.

"The investigation will be concluded shortly and I hope and pray for justice and reconciliation."

The House Conduct Committee is made up of Fahey; co-chair Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville; Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland; and Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio. They are a thoughtful, respectful group.

Update: After this column was posted, Kotek's office responded to Hernandez's comments above by stating that investigations are completed regardless of whether a legislator resigns. That is one of the major changes in rules since the sexual harassment allegations regarding Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, led to his resignation in 2018.

Danny Moran, Kotek's communications director, sent the following:

"Subsection (f) of Section 14 in HCR 20: If a member of the Legislative Assembly is the respondent and irrevocably resigns the member's office at any time after the conduct complaint is made, the investigation described in this subsection and the committee on conduct hearing and final committee determinations described in paragraph (e) of this subsection shall nevertheless take place."

And in other news: Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, sent letters to Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney calling for the Legislature to meet in the Oregon Capitol for a special session. His purpose would be to pass a resolution terminating Gov. Kate Brown's state of emergency declaration on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, Kotek's staff told me: "The Speaker supports the Governor's decision to extend the state of emergency. She does not support Sen. Boquist's request for a special session."

Courtney's staff said he had no comment.

In his letter to the presiding officers, who are Democrats, Boquist wrote, "Said joint resolution shall end the state of emergency; confirm the legislative intent that all citizens shall be treated equally; confirm the legislative intent all citizens shall have equal access to available health care; confirm the legislative intent that existing statutory health care laws with in ORS Chapter 433 will be followed to aid all ill citizens equally; confirm the legislative intent all [citizens'] constitutional rights will not be impeded upon by the state; and the State will provide "reasonable compensation" for losses and actions and "powers taken" under ORS 401.192 (3) inclusive of ORS 401.188 and ORS 433.441 (6) and (2) as statutorily intended when enacted by the Legislative Assembly."

Boquist went on to write, "On March 8, 2020, given situational unknowns, the Governor may well have acted appropriately, however, two months later with situational clarity, Oregon must re-align its approach to statistical reality that demands immediate changes to equally protect all citizens."

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.