Legislature hears first citizen complaint under law
Wednesday, December 18, 2019
The House Special Committee on Conduct met Wednesday, Dec. 18, for the first time since rules changes made it easier for the public to access complaints against legislators. The afternoon hearing could herald an increase in the number of such complaints.
The Legislature has a troubled history with workplace harassment and misconduct. Most notably, former Sen. Jeff Kruse allegedly inappropriately touched multiple women in the Capitol, including other senators, according to an independent investigator. Legislative leadership, including House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, have since attempted to change the culture in Salem. The Legislature passed legislation to address sexual harassment in Oregon generally and to hold legislators to a higher standard. These efforts have had missteps but generally have moved toward protecting workplace harassment victims.
In 2019, the Legislature changed legislative branch personnel rule 27, which governs misconduct complaints against legislators or other legislative branch employees. Among other changes, the rules were updated to allow for greater transparency and public records access.
Complaint 9, the focus of Wednesday’s hearing, is unrelated to education. Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, is alleged to have made a reference to “Russian trolls” in a floor speech on vaccines. The complaint filed by Juliya Gudev, a private citizen, said that this speech offended her and constituted harassment based on her Russian heritage.
In response, Gudev scheduled a meeting with Witt to ask for an apology. Witt referenced a New York Times article entitled “Russian Trolls Used Vaccine Debate to Sow Discord, Study Finds” and indicated that his comment was not aimed at anyone of Russian heritage but rather that he was appropriately referencing a newspaper article. Witt also forcefully declined to apologize. Gudev filed a formal complaint.
The report investigator from an outside law firm concluded that “while Rep. Witt’s behavior during the May 9, 2019, meeting may have reasonably been perceived as abrupt and rude, it does not rise to the level of a Rule 27 violation or otherwise constitute discrimination based on gender, national origin, or any other legally protected characteristic.”
It is unclear whether Witt will face any sanction or punishment. Much of the hearing focused on what powers the committee had to dispense sanctions.
The investigative report concluded no likely violations of rule 27, but Rep. John Lively, D- Springfield, noted that the committee was “the House Committee on Conduct, not the committee on legislative branch personnel rule 27.” In this same vein, legislators asked committee staff to answer specific questions and decided to adjourn the meeting until January so staff could research answers.
This hearing could have broader implications for the business of the Legislature. Will this be something that continues to be an occasional occurrence? That a few times a year, the Legislature handles allegations of workplace disagreements and makes a fact-specific determination? Or will this be the beginning of a deluge of complaints?
It is hard to say, but it seems that the new transparency will allow us all to follow along.