Legislature seeks ways to improve its harassment policies
SALEM — Legislative leaders want to improve the Legislature's process for addressing harassment complaints in the wake of Sen. Jeff Kruse's resignation.
Kruse, R-Roseburg, will depart the Senate March 15 in the aftermath of an outside investigation, released last week, determining the senator had repeatedly touched women, including fellow lawmakers, without their consent or in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. The report found he continued even after being told to stop by human resources officials.
Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told reporters Monday that she and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, will announce how they plan to move forward on the issue in the next week or so.
The Kruse investigation is the first time that the policies got a "full workout," and outside assessment of the Legislature's process is still a distinct possibility, Kotek said.
The state capitol is a unique workplace that not only houses employees of the legislative branch, but also elected officials, lobbyists and constituents under its roof. While interns are considered employees and are covered by legislative personnel rules on harassment, lobbyists and members of the public are not.
The presiding officers of the House and Senate have limited powers when it comes to disciplining members under the state's constitution, Kotek said.
Lawmakers are independently elected, and their chamber can vote to expel them, but only after a lengthy process including an outside investigation and convening of a special committee on conduct.
"We have limited tools, short of expelling someone from a floor vote, to have a member leave, and I don't think we'll be able to fix that, to be very honest," Kotek said. "That's a constitutional issue...but what are the things you can do up to that point?"
In late October, Courtney, the senate president, had Kruse's door removed and removed him from policy committees as punishment for continued unwanted touching of women and failure to stop smoking indoors.
"You would think that taking someone's door off and taking them off their committees would have had the intended impact," Kotek said.
But Kotek said she thinks it's possible to make everyone working in the building more comfortable reporting harassment.
One idea to facilitate that: an anonymous tipline for complaints.
Currently, reports go to legislative employee services or legislative counsel. As it stands, Kotek described the process as "clunky" and it can be hard on people who make complaints.
"Given the political nature of this building, we have to ensure trust and confidentiality as best we can," Kotek said, "and I think that was why this took as long as it did, because until the senators came forward, I don't think we all recognized how difficult it was out there."
Sens. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, made formal complaints about Kruse's behavior last fall. The investigator, attorney Dian Rubanoff, made note of the fact that other women who told her they were harassed by Kruse only felt comfortable coming forward after seeing Gelser do so publicly.
Although Oregon's rules and procedures for addressing incidents of sexual harassment are held up as a model for other states — the National Conference of State Legislatures showcased the policies of Oregon and several other state legislatures in a Feb. 9 webinar on preventing sexual harassment — Gelser says there's a lot of room for improvement.
The Corvallis Democrat filed a formal complaint against Kruse in November, more than a year and a half after initially reporting him privately to the Legislature's human resources department. In that period, he continued to touch women at the capitol, including law students who worked for him and a lobbyist, according to the investigation.
Gelser said that while there are constitutional and due process considerations at play when a person accused of harassment is an elected member of the Legislature, there should be stronger protections for people who are victims of harassment.
"It's a process designed to protect powerful people," Gelser said.