Oregon lawmakers: Rep. Diego Hernandez created a hostile workplace
Oregon lawmakers on Tuesday found Rep. Diego Hernandez created a hostile workplace at the state Capitol in Salem for at least one woman who worked in the building.
The Democratic lawmaker’s conduct violated legislative conduct rules, the four-panel committee decided.
Lawmakers started a series of hearings into the allegations of the East Portland lawmaker’s behavior on Monday night. The hearings are expected to last most of the week.
Lawmakers are basing their findings on both testimony and an investigation conducted by Sarah Ryan and Kira Johal, with the law firm Jackson Lewis P.C. The investigation delves into the allegations of five women, identified only as ‘subject one’ through ‘subject five.’ The investigators could not substantiate claims made by two women who participated in the investigation.
On Tuesday night, the woman identified in the report only as ‘subject one’ testified in front of lawmakers. She told lawmakers Hernandez capitalized on both his position as a lawmaker as well as the “inherent dynamics of sexual harassment that make it personally and professionally humiliating” for the women who are subjected to harassment to come forward.
The lawmaker “created a completely fantastical story about angry ex-girlfriends who were recruited in a coordinated effort to push him out of the legislature because of a single vote he took,” the woman, ‘subject one,’ told lawmakers.
“A narrative that ‘this is nothing but a couple bad breakups,’ and that ‘dating when you’re young is hard.’ A narrative that completely lacks any measure of reality or accountability,” she continued.
‘Subject one’ was partly referencing a statement made by Hernandez in response to the investigative report released last week.
The woman described her brief, consensual relationship with the lawmaker. She said she knew quickly she wanted to end the relationship but found it wasn’t easy. The lawmaker continued to pursue her — despite her declining politely and repeatedly over a span of months. At one point, the lawmaker appeared at the woman’s apartment. She hid in her closet until he left.
“It was clear to me that I’d completely lost any measure of control over the situation,” the woman said.
The woman had been working as a lobbyist but started a new executive-level job where she would end up working closely with Hernandez. At the time, he was part of the House leadership team.
“With this new professional position came a new tone from Rep. Hernandez,” the woman testified. “A tone that was less requesting of my time and more insisting upon my time. I was met with a new level of persistence … I perceived this as him using his position as a member of the leadership team to gain access to me in this new position.”
And then came what she felt was a veiled threat.
He told her she was a great fit for her new role, but then criticized her work performance and accused her of drinking too much at a political event.
“He offered that he was sharing this with me and no one else, but he and I should meet in person and sort out how to work together moving forward,” the woman said.
She felt like it was an attack on her credibility, she said, and coming from someone with influence and power over her professional career. She felt exhausted and worn out by his insistence and nearly eight months of unwanted advances including sending boxes of gifts, leaving flowers on her car, requests to meet up and go to happy hour.
Feeling “cornered,” she said, and wanting Hernandez’s behavior to end, she finally spoke with her supervisor, House Speaker Tina Kotek.
“I told her I was embarrassed and that I hated that this was a distraction from our work … I told her that I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t want anyone to know and I just didn’t want to deal with him anymore,” the woman said, her voice cracking while speaking to lawmakers on Tuesday night.
But the investigative process, the woman said, which has been long and frustrating, has only added to the humiliation and trauma she has experienced both professionally and personally.
The lawmaker took advantage of “unfettered access to the media and his colleagues” to shape a narrative that “distracts from his actions” against ‘subject one’ and the other women, the woman testified.
The woman pointed out Hernandez had said his actions were motivated by honest affection and the best intentions and he apologized for making any woman feel uncomfortable.
“Yet, when I declined his advances over the course of months, he retaliated with veiled threats to jeopardize my professional standing in a new position over which he had power,” she said.
The state Capitol in Salem is a workplace full of power imbalances, where a good relationship with a legislator can often determine whether a staff member or a lobbyist succeeds or fails at their jobs.
“I’m here today first and foremost to defend my character and credibility against the bizarre narratives about this investigation and my experience,” the woman said. “I feel obligated to do so because we operate in a profession where a person’s credibility is everything. Rep. Hernandez knows that and has wielded his attacks accordingly.”
Hernandez pushes back
Hernandez’s attorney, Salem-based Kevin Lafky, called the legislative proceedings so far “one-sided” and “deeply flawed.”
“If Rep. Hernandez has power over his narrative, you would not know it by this committee proceeding,” Lafky said after the hearing concluded on Tuesday evening. “Our evidence has been redacted to the point that it’s meaningless. He’s not been allowed to defend himself. He’s not allowed to present relevant evidence. He’s not allowed to respond to the allegations that are being made.”
Lafky read a seven-page statement on behalf of Hernandez on Monday, but Hernandez has not testified in front of lawmakers.
“If Rep. Hernandez tries to defend himself, he’s accused of retaliation. If he tries to speak to the media, he is accused of retaliation. If he tries to speak at all, he is accused of retaliation,” Lafky said. “So what does he do?”
The outside investigators looking into the allegations against Hernandez were not tasked with determining whether the lawmaker violated the state Capitol rule that prohibits harassment. They were hired to determine the facts, which they have now presented to the House Committee on Conduct.
The panel of four lawmakers on the Conduct Committee went through each fact outlined in the investigation for ‘subject one’ and ‘subject two’ and voted on whether they believed there was enough evidence to support the fact and whether they believe he violated the rules of workplace conduct. For ‘subject one,’ lawmakers voted Hernandez violated six workplace harassment rules.
The entire process — from the length of the investigation to the proceedings of the committee currently underway — has drawn criticisms.
Most recently, lawmakers voting on each individual fact in the report drew scrutiny on social media for re-traumatizing the women who had decided to share their experiences.
Lawmakers have gone through each finding detailed by the investigators — such as ‘did Hernandez send anonymous gift boxes? Did he engage in persistent, unwanted courting?’ — and then vote on whether they agree with the investigation.
“Are y’all ready for more legislators voting on whether traumatic experiences actually happened?” wrote former legislative staffer Audrey Mechling on Twitter. “Are y’all ready for them to vote again on whether or not those traumatic experiences constituted harassment? I’m not.”
In another tweet, Mechling added, “The fact that these survivors are being forced to testify after having heard legislators debate, pick apart, and deny the traumatic experiences of the women before them is truly nauseating. Your hourly reminder that the process does not have to be like this.”
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting