Panel: Oregon Gov candidate didn't create hostile workplace

FILE - Democratic nominee Tina Kotek speaks during a gubernatorial debate in Welches, Ore., Friday, July 29, 2022. The conduct committee of the Oregon House determined on Monday, Oct. 31, 2021, that Kotek did not create a hostile work environment for a lawmaker when she was House speaker. (Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group via AP, Pool,File) (Jamie Valdez, Pamplin Media Group)

SALEM, Ore. – Democratic candidate for governor Tina Kotek did not create a hostile work environment for a lawmaker when she was House speaker, the Oregon House Conduct Committee determined Monday after voting mostly along party lines.

The committee members, two Democrats and two Republicans, decided that some of Kotek's behavior toward former Rep. Diego Hernandez was “unwelcome," such as when she raised her voice at him as they argued over support for bills.

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But a motion to characterize Kotek's behavior as “severe or pervasive” failed, with the two Republicans voting yes and both Democrats saying no. A motion needs a majority of votes to pass.

Hernandez, a Democrat, told the committee in an earlier remote hearing on Oct. 19 that he was bullied by Kotek to the point that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kotek, who was the longest-serving speaker of the House in Oregon history, is in a tight race for governor against Republican nominee Christine Drazan, with unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson potentially siphoning off votes that would have gone to Kotek in a two-way race.

Hernandez himself faced accusations that he created a hostile work environment for three women. He announced his resignation in 2021, days before the House was scheduled to vote on whether to expel him.

Investigator Melissa Healy, a lawyer hired by the Legislature, had already exonerated Kotek in her draft report. She told the committee again Monday that she didn't see Kotek's conduct as severe or pervasive.

“A contentious conversation between colleagues as they’re both advocating for their position on bills is not going to rise to that level," Healy said by video link. "I also didn’t find that the conduct was pervasive.”

Legislature rules say a person “creates a hostile work environment by engaging in behavior that is unwelcome and is so severe or pervasive that it either affects a person’s ability to function in the workplace or denies a person the benefits of the workplace.”

Kotek earlier said she was satisfied by Healy's conclusion that Hernandez's accusations were “baseless” and accused Hernandez of deflecting.

“Rep. Hernandez made this unfounded complaint a few days after an independent investigator concluded that he created a hostile work environment for women at the Oregon State Capitol,” Kotek wrote to the committee.

Neither Kotek nor Hernandez appeared at Monday's work session of the committee.

Hernandez told the committee on Oct. 19 that Kotek had angrily threatened his bill to provide drivers licenses to Oregonians who arrived in the U.S. illegally unless he supported another bill to cut retirement benefits for the state’s public employees. Both measures eventually passed. He also said Kotek had threatened to ruin his political career.

According to Statehouse rules, the investigation of Hernandez’s complaint was supposed to have been completed within 84 days. It took more than a year.

The conduct committee, composed of Rep. John Lively and Jason Kropf, both Democrats; and Rep. Raquel Moore-Green and Rep. Werner Reschke, both Republicans, agreed that the process was drawn out too long.

“I don't know what the remedy would have been had we come to conclusion the rules were violated,” Lively said. “Neither member is still there.”