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Oregon can’t find anyone to handle harassment complaints, so it’s spending $100k to recruit

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

It’s been more than a year since Oregon’s Legislature had what’s known as a legislative equity officer, the official who is supposed to coordinate a response to harassment and retaliation complaints within the Capitol.

The vacancy has not lingered for lack of trying. Administrators first posted a job opening for the highly sensitive position last year, even extending their recruitment window, but have been unable to find a suitable fit.

Now, the Legislature is calling in outside help.

Capitol administrators have agreed to pay an East Coast recruitment firm up to $100,000 to help find a new legislative equity officer, also known as LEO. The cost of the services is likely to be closer to $50,000 under terms of a contract reviewed by OPB, though the total could be well higher depending on how much the firm, Spelman Johnson, spends finding suitable candidates.

The decision to hire a high-priced recruiter is a rarity for a legislative administration that typically does its own hiring. It’s emblematic of the extreme difficulty Oregon has had finding and keeping a full-time LEO, a position created in response to a Senate sexual harassment scandal in 2018.

The first person to take on the role in a temporary capacity, Jackie Sandmeyer, opted not to seek the job permanently, and has since been accused of lax record keeping and ignoring complaints.

The next legislative equity officer, Nate Monson, was hired after a nationwide search and moved to Oregon from Iowa. Monson resigned under pressure after just two months on the job, when the Legislature’s human resources director raised concerns about discrepancies on his resume she did not catch initially. He has since sued the state, and has been unsparing in his criticisms of the way Capitol administrators have supported the office.

“When I started, people would say, ‘This place is crazy,’” Monson told OPB last year. “I felt like they warned me this is a terrible job.”

Despite that rocky history, Spelman Johnson has projected supreme confidence it can find the Legislature a suitable fit. In a proposal, the firm billed itself as “thought leaders in this landscape, with nearly 30 years of experience managing senior-level search and diversifying the talent pipeline.”

“We have an extensive network of leadership contacts and are uniquely qualified to conduct executive searches for government organizations,” the proposal read. Of 54 recruitments it conducted in 2020, Spelman Johnson said 97% resulted in a position being filled.

Not everyone is apparently so confident. While the Legislature received two proposals from firms interested in recruiting a new LEO, state Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said recently he’d been told others refused to put their names in.

“When they first were interviewing for the potential to do this, there were a couple contractors that came in that said: ‘We’re not even bidding for this because we don’t think you can fill this position. People can’t do this position. You put them in this impossible position to create accountability where no accountability can be had,’” said Bonham, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Conduct Committee and one of four lawmakers in charge of filling the LEO vacancy.

Because of the high-stakes situations it deals with, the LEO can be the focus of extreme political pressures. Last year alone, it handled harassment complaints that led to the resignation of one lawmaker, and saw another lose his position atop a legislative committee.

The position was created after concerns arose in 2018 that people who complained about harassment, retaliation or other bad behavior within the Capitol might not get fair treatment from the legislative attorneys and human resources officials who formerly handled such matters.

The LEO is supposed to have a measure of independence from politicians that those other officials might not, but the position is still subject to legislative power. The office is overseen by the Joint Conduct Committee, made up of members of both parties and both legislative chambers.

With no equity officer in place since last June, the Legislature has instead handed the position’s responsibilities to private employment attorneys at two law firms, Jackson Lewis and Stoel Rives. Such attorneys are always part of the Legislature’s complaint process, acting as investigators. Now they also are responsible for fielding complaints and helping complainants understand the process.

Evidence suggests they are not always carrying out their duties.

Former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, resigned last year after an investigation into harassment complaints from several women with whom he’d had romantic relationships. But Hernandez filed a complaint of his own, accusing then-House Speaker Tina Kotek of creating a hostile work environment against him by threatening to ruin his political career if he did not support a priority bill.

Kotek is now the Democratic nominee for governor, and is locked in a tight three-way battle that could see her party lose the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly four decades. But the question of whether she broke Capitol conduct rules remains unclear. More than a year and a half after Hernandez’s complaint, private attorney Melissa Healy has yet to release an investigatory report that could include unflattering details.

What’s more, Hernandez says Healy has ceased even offering him updates on the case. After telling him the investigation was complete in April, she has not responded to any of his repeated inquiries. That’s despite legislative rules that dictate investigators like Healy must keep parties to a complaint informed “on a regular basis… and upon request of the complainant or respondent.”

The same rules suggest complaint investigations should be completed within 84 days. Hernandez’s complaint has now languished for more than 600. Healy has ignored repeated requests from OPB to discuss the case. (Editor’s note: Healy has performed legal work for OPB.)

Kotek has denied repeatedly that she threatened to end Hernandez’s career, or that she created a hostile work environment. She told OPB earlier this year she hasn’t been told why the complaint against her has lingered. “I don’t know why it’s taken so long,” Kotek said at the time. “It’s awkward to be having conversations about it now that I’m no longer Speaker.”

Hernandez, meanwhile, has continued to push for a resolution, including in an email he sent to Healy and several others officials on Monday. “I have been waiting for updates,” he wrote. “I’ve texted, called, emailed… I’m still in waiting.”

Just as unclear is when the Legislature might tap a new legislative equity officer. Legislative Administrator Brett Hanes signed a contract with the recruitment firm in late May. It included no deadline for when a pool of candidates would be available.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Nate Monson, bottom left, addresses lawmakers during a hearing in April 2021.
Dirk VanderHart /
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Nate Monson, bottom left, addresses lawmakers during a hearing in April 2021.
Former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, on the House floor in April 2019.
Bradley W. Parks /
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State Rep. Diego Hernandez is pictured on the House floor at the Capitol in April 2019.

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.