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Rep. Brad Witt will lose committee roles over text exchange

State Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, speaks with Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.
Bradley W. Parks
State Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, speaks with Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Oregon state Rep. Brad Witt will officially lose control of one legislative committee and be swapped out of others, following a determination he sent inappropriate texts to a colleague.

House Speaker Tina Kotek announced Monday she was unilaterally taking those actions after a committee that takes up workplace matters could not agree last week on a punishment for Witt, D-Clatskanie.

“In my authority as Speaker, I am removing Representative Witt as chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources,” Kotek wrote in a statement to House members Monday. “I hold all chairs to a high standard of conduct, and Representative Witt failed to meet that standard.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported Kotek’s decision.

The consequences imposed by the House conduct committee could be lighter than nearly any taken up by the House Conduct Committee at a meeting on Friday.

At that hearing, Republicans proposed that Witt lose his assignments on all committees until the end of 2022, when his current term in office expires. Democrats favored taking away Witt’s ability to chair a committee through 2022, denying him the opportunity to hold a powerful position. The two sides repeatedly deadlocked, however, and could only agree that Witt should receive coaching and training.

While Kotek left the door open for Witt’s role as chair to be removed for an extended period, that’s not a foregone conclusion. The speaker said it “will depend on his engagement and learning from the coaching and training he will receive.”

Witt voluntarily stepped down as chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee after state Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson, R-Prineville, lodged a complaint against him in April. With the session nearing a close, the committee has completed its substantive work.

Kotek is also removing Witt from the House Water Committee and House Business and Labor Committee, on which Breese Iverson also sits.

“As your Speaker, I take Representative Witt’s actions and the work of the House Committee on Conduct very seriously,” Kotek wrote. “Our goal is to work together to improve our workplace culture and to ensure that the Capitol is a safe and respectful place for everyone.”

Witt did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The case against the longtime lawmaker stems from an April 12 text exchange he had with Breese Iverson. The discussion began with Breese Iverson pressing Witt to support one of her bills, but changed tone when Witt suggested the two should make time for a beer, dinner or “something better.”

Breese Iverson interpreted the exchange as Witt offering his vote for a date. Witt says he was merely trying to clear the air in a professional relationship that had grown tense by suggesting they meet.

The House Conduct Committee agreed with both lawmakers. It found that Witt did not intend to proposition Breese Iverson with an inappropriate quid pro quo, but also that his texts could be easily interpreted as such. Breese Iverson said she was profoundly impacted by the exchange.

The committee determined Witt had broken rules against sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environement.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.