SALEM — The identities of victims who reported harassment in the Oregon Legislature could be made public without their consent, though whether or not that will happen remains unclear.
In an exclusive interview with The World, Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick weighed in on the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries going after the entire legislative branch of the state government, something that has never been done before.
As reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting back in August, it all began when Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian “accused state leaders of creating a hostile work environment in which reports of sexual harassment were ignored, underplayed or buried,” OPB wrote.
Avakian went on to single out Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek of ignoring complaints of sexual harassment related to Sen. Jeff Kruse, who later resigned after his behavior was made public.
Since then, the Legislature has fought BOLI’s subpoena to obtain all reported harassment and sexual harassment complaints since 2011 but finally complied with the request this week. That request created a sizable document of 20,000 pages, according to Burdick on Thursday.
“I’m very concerned,” she said. “Obviously we are taking a hard look at what policies are in the Legislature.”
She pointed to Legislative Branch Personnel Rule 27, which is often used as a national model for creating a harassment-free workplace.
“The Kruse situation shows us that we need to take another look at that rule so women and anyone who feels unsafe in the workplace is made to feel safe, where problems are dealt with at a very early stage,” Burdick said. “The rub is, where does confidentiality fit in? When women come forward, we have given them an assurance of confidentiality.”
She explained that there exists two routes for harassment complaints, one informal and one formal. The victim has the option to choose either and decide how far to go with it.
“We bend over backward to accommodate the sensitivities of the victims,” she said. “We do that for two reasons, the first being it’s the right thing to do and because we don’t want to victimize someone again. Two, because we want to create an environment where people feel safe coming forward. There are people who have no problem saying something happened to them and put their name out there, and all gradations between.”
For Burdick, Avakian’s action “has been very distressing to me because we had an extensive process going with the Oregon Law Commission after the Kruse situation,” she said.
According to Burdick, once it became known that Kruse had sexually harassed and touched women at the Capitol, it was Senate President Peter Courtney who took immediate action.
“He took the door off Kruse’s office, took all his committee’s away and used every power he had as a presiding officer to deal quickly with the situation,” she said. “To be honest, he may not have had the authority to do that, but he went as far as he possibly could.”
The difficult part of this is that the legislative officials are elected, meaning they can’t be fired.
However, there is a process in place where a complaint can lead to an investigation. If it gets to that point, a conduct committee and hearings are held on the elected individual accused of harassment.
“When you look at the situation, it’s fortunate that we could negotiate the (Kruse) resignation rather than go through that process,” Burdick said. “You can imagine what would happen at a conduct committee. The victims would come forward and be questioned. It would be hard on everyone. The fact is, if you have an elected official, the presiding officer doesn’t have hiring and firing authority and neither does anyone else except this expulsion process, which is extreme and painful.”
Burdick expects to be involved in the legislative review of the rules, helping to look for improvements so people feel safe and where problems can be dealt with “quickly, effectively, and transparently,” she said.
“The mystery here is that (BOLI) was involved in that, working constructively to provide their expertise because they are the experts in workplace safety, and that was going well,” Burdick explained. “And out of the blue, (Avakian) files this complaint, this confrontational action that compromises the privacy of these women who we have assured that their information would be kept confidential.”
OPB reported this confidentiality issue in November, explaining that, “For its part, BOLI said it’s gone to great lengths to ensure that such anonymity remains in place. The bureau has secured a protective order from an administrative law judge, barring public release of any materials it secures in subpoenas. . . Attorneys for the Legislature have suggested that order isn’t trustworthy.”
Now that the Legislature is handing over these sensitive reports to BOLI, Burdick said she had to call a former staff member on Wednesday to say Avakian had her name and contact information.
“There are women we’ve heard reports of who are in distress that their information might get out,” Burdick said. “It’s hard to understand what (Avakian’s) motives could possibly be to get names, contact information in light of the fact that these two interns, part of the complaint, were tracked down when they wanted to be confidential. Now they are playing an active role, so I don’t know what the communication between them was, but initially they didn’t want their names out and he tracked them down. He wanted to find out who they were and he found out. He went to great lengths to bring them forward.
“This makes me very, very nervous that this sort of thing is going on,” she said.
For Burdick, this move from BOLI puts the Legislature in a bad position because she never wanted to suppress any legitimate investigation into how its rules work.
“If our rules can be improved, if situations can be brought to light while protecting the identities of the people who want to be confidential, then go for it,” she said. “The more transparent the better. But when we have to break our promise to people, that is very, very, very upsetting to me.”
Burdick said her own name will be found in those 20,000 pages of records requested by BOLI, though her name will be present as participating in some of the investigations.
There had also been accusations that lawmakers intimidated some of the women who complained of harassment, though Burdick said there was no evidence of that.
“That’s a lot of grandstanding going on,” she said. “I do not trust this process. I am very nervous about what (Avakian) is up to.”
Burdick added that it also makes her uneasy knowing Avakian will leave his post as BOLI commissioner, which begs the question of what will happen to those records and who can make copies?
In its effort to fight back, the Legislature had questioned BOLI’s authority to even do this.
“Why is (Avakian) so desperate to get these records now?” she said. “I’m sure he’s trying to portray this as the Legislature trying to cover up, but that is not true. We’re going through a process that’s never been undertaken before. It makes me nervous because he did not need to push this issue. He seems desperate to get these records before he leaves office and that makes me nervous.”
To the victims in those reports, Burdick says she is sorry.
“I personally have been involved in a couple cases where I assured people they would be confidential and I’m heartbroken that this is happening to them,” she said.