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Capitol workplace culture must change

Less than a month before the 2019 session convenes, a Bureau of Labor and Industries investigation has concluded the Oregon Legislature is a hostile workplace, and legislative leaders have done far too little to change it. Among the most alarming findings of the five-month investigation are charges that women in the most powerful leadership positions in the Capitol downplayed accusations of sexual harassment.

Many of the allegations involved former Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, who resigned last March. Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, told investigators that Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick suggested she was grandstanding by accusing Kruse, and then Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, told Gelser, “You just need to learn how to deal with this.” Gelser reported House Speaker Tina Kotek told her she was considered unlikable in the Capitol and had made the harassment complaint all about her. Kotek said in a statement that she disagreed with the report’s characterization of her conversations and vowed to continue to work to improve the Legislature’s culture.

Until the investigators’ report released Thursday, discussion of harassment had centered around Kruse, who may have sexually harassed as many as 15 women. But the report says harassment was not limited to Kruse and details incidents involving other lawmakers, including Senate President Peter Courtney, who allegedly told an office manager to either resign or be fired or demoted because he disapproved of her dating a House member. Courtney denies it.

Regardless of the specific details of who said what to whom, it appears clear from the report’s conclusions that the culture of harassment pervades the Capitol, involving lobbyists, staffers and lawmakers alike. The Oregonian reported that a legislative employee’s notes about one woman’s complaint described an atmosphere where long workdays and alcohol fueled inappropriate behavior.

The investigation was launched in response to a complaint by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who accused the entire Legislature, along with its human resources chief, its lawyer and the Department of Administrative Services, of failing to adequately address the problems. Avakian is leaving office, and his successor, Val Hoyle, will decide how to proceed.

Hoyle, like Avakian, is a former legislator, who should know as well as anyone what the Capitol culture is like. The hostile environment the BOLI investigators describe is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. The Legislature is a unique environment with complicated power dynamics, but it is still a workplace. Hoyle should use the power of her office to make it a safer one.