Senator Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) and Representative Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland), who lead the Capitol Culture Committee, recently introduced House Bill 2859 (HB 2859) to create a new Legislative Equity Office and establish “legal privilege” of confidentiality for not only those who report harassment, but also those accused of harassment and inappropriate behavior.
While HR2859 has some institutional support, having been born of the nonpartisan Oregon Law Commission and supported by the American Association of University Women (Oregon Chapter). It is opposed by Senator Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) and four others who work in the Capitol, three of whom have experienced harassment while working there.
Sen. Gelser testified that the proposed confidentiality “might protect victims,” but would also “protect perpetrators.”
The Oregon Law Commission’s investigation began after the revelations of widespread harassment in the Capitol, including allegations that former Sen. Jeff Kruse inappropriately touched and harassed Sen. Gelser. Last month, a separate investigation by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) “found pervasive sexual harassment in the Capitol, made worse by an inconsistent and ineffective process for reporting and investigating complaints.”
The proposed Legislative Equity Office would not only handle all harassment complaints in the legislature, but would make those complaints private on the basis of the new confidentiality rules. Normally, Oregon employees can submit similar complaints to BOLI, which are kept as accessible public records. Under HR 2859, the details of complaints filed with the Legislative Equity Office would be kept confidential, not able to be retrieved by normal records requests procedures.
Nigel Jaquiss of Willamette Week, summarizing the bill, wrote “In other words, the bill would protect lawmakers from a repeat of the public embarrassment suffered when then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian released his damning findings in January.”
The Bend Bulletin’s editorial board, officially opposing the bill in an op-ed on February 21, evaluated the end results of the bill in much starker terms.
“The Harvey Weinsteins of the world couldn’t have done a better job keeping their behavior secret,” they wrote.
-By Ian McRonald