An Oregon legislative panel declined to rule Wednesday on whether Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek created a hostile work environment when she served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.
Ann independent investigation found insufficient evidence in allegations that Kotek threatened and harassed former state representative Diego Hernandez. Wednesday’s House Conduct Committee hearing was intended to hear testimony from Hernandez and witnesses and decide whether to accept the report’s findings. Lawmakers postponed the decision until an unscheduled future meeting, saying they did not have enough time.
Hernandez, also a Democrat, claims that Kotek jeopardized his personal life, career and accounts because he did not vote with her on 2019 legislation cutting employee benefits.
This kind of conversation might not be appropriate in another workplace, but this is the legislature and this is not a normal workplace.
– Stoel Reeves, Attorney Melissa Healey
Melissa Healey, an attorney with Portland-based Stoelle Reeves hired to conduct the investigation, found that Hernandez’s account was likely true — but that didn’t mean Kotek broke the law.
“That kind of conversation might not be appropriate in another workplace, but this is the legislature and this is not a normal workplace,” Healy said.
Hernandez told the committee that Healy’s conclusion sets a dangerous precedent — that it’s okay for people to feel insecure, harassed, scared and controlled at work because they work in politics.
“The researcher with this report is trying to normalize as part of the legislative workplace culture that management is allowed to use threats of harassment, intimidation, yelling, outbursts and anger to get you to comply with its rule because the rules , who wrote for themselves give them that power,” he said.
The meeting came on the day county officials began sending out ballots to voters who will decide over the next three weeks whether to elect Kotek to the state’s highest office. Her Republican opponent, Christine Drazan, made headlines for the complaint in the advertising campaigns.
Committee members heard from Hernandez and three witnesses on his behalf: two former state representatives and a current state senator. Kotek did not speak to the committee, but sent an email to the committee chairs in early October asking them to confirm the researcher’s findings.
“This report is long overdue, but I am pleased with the clear conclusion that these were baseless allegations,” Kotek wrote.
She urged lawmakers to consider reforms to prevent lawmakers from politicizing the complaint process. Hernandez filed his appeal in January 2021, 20 months after that vote. When he filed the complaint, an investigator looking into multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Hernandez had just concluded that Hernandez was creating a hostile work environment for women.
“His complaint against me was a clear attempt to distract people from his own harmful behavior and undermines the true purpose of the Conduct Committee, which is to make the Capitol a safe and welcoming place for everyone to work,” Kotek wrote.
“Physical symptoms of pain”
An emotional Hernandez told the commission that the stress of working under Kotek took a toll on his body. He said he was rushed to the hospital with gallstones, which he attributed to his stress, and was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that stems from repeated trauma.
“I had physical symptoms of pain, sweating and nausea,” he said. “I had panic attacks and anxiety, it was hard for me to concentrate on everyday tasks. I felt emotionally numb, like I was free falling. I didn’t feel like sleeping. I had trouble maintaining personal relationships and it was hard for me to look into the future and see hope for me.”
He attempted suicide in the summer, Willamette Week reported, and Healy did not complete her report until a week after Hernandez told her about the experience. Former state Rep. Brian Klemm, who spoke to the committee on Hernandez’s behalf, confirmed the experience.
Hernandez also submitted written testimony, including screenshots of texts and emails. He asked that it be shared with the public, but legislative staff refused to release it, saying redactions might be needed.
Klemm, a Democrat who represented Salem until December 2021, told lawmakers he was nervous to talk to them. He made a video call from South Korea, where he said he was working on a project that could bring hundreds of jobs to Oregon — if the state’s next governor approves permits.
Clem advocated for the investigation to be completed well before the upcoming election. He said he didn’t like Hernandez when they started working together, but they worked closely together and he witnessed Hernandez struggle with depression. Clem also urged one of the women who claimed Hernandez engaged in inappropriate behavior to report the behavior and said friends should hold each other accountable.
The idea that the legislature is not a regular workplace for legislators is not OK. You are human too. You deserve the protections.
– Former state representative Brian Clem
He told lawmakers they should be able to vote as they see fit for their constituents, without retaliation.
“The idea that the legislature is not a regular workplace for legislators is not OK,” he said. “You are human too. You deserve protection.”
Matt Wand, a former Republican lawmaker who served one term from 2011-13, told the committee he has known Hernandez since he was a teenager. The two fell out over political differences years ago, and Won reconnected after reading about Hernandez in the paper, he said.
Wand said Kotek crossed the line by threatening Hernandez’s career. Lawmakers can fight over bills, Wand said, but they shouldn’t threaten each other’s privacy.
“The House under Speaker Kotek was broken,” Wand said. “It was toxic. And everybody knew it.”
Sen. Dallas Hurd, R-Roseburg, said he and Hernandez couldn’t be more different on paper: Hernandez is Latino, from urban Portland, and has been called a far leftist; Hurd is a white man from rural Oregon and has been called far-right. But they became friends, and Hurd said he was shocked when he walked in on Kotek swearing at Hernandez.
“I have seen my former colleague, Representative Diego Hernandez, go from an energetic, loving, wonderful advocate for the little people, the underrepresented, the political minority, to a still loving, caring good person, but someone who is very broken, and I can share a lot of the same concerns,” Hurd said.
And in a letter to the committee, state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, expressed dismay that information from her interviews with investigators was not included in the final report.
“If for some reason this information has been lost or omitted, I feel comfortable saying that our system has failed us,” Bynum wrote. “We have failed in our efforts to create a productive legislative environment focused on democracy and inclusion.”
She said she was most concerned about the long delay: Legislative rules say investigations must be completed within 84 days, while Hernandez waited nearly two years. Healy attributed those delays to the availability of witnesses, saying at times it felt like people weren’t interested in talking to her.
Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem and the committee’s current co-chair, questioned whether Healy or Stoel Rives had a conflict of interest with Kotek. Stoelle Rives topped all three candidates in the governor’s race by $2,500.