Authorities are investigating whether demonstrators who gained access to the Oregon State Capitol last month were allowed in purposefully by a state lawmaker.
According to Capitol sources with knowledge of the subject, surveillance footage from the morning shows state Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, exiting the Capitol on the north side of the building, near where demonstrators were gathering to protest restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19. Shortly afterward, some demonstrators gained access to a vestibule within the building, setting off a standoff with state troopers and Salem police that resulted in two arrests.
According to one person with knowledge of the investigation, Nearman appears to have walked around the Capitol building and used his ID badge to re-enter from the south side. The Legislature was meeting in a special session on Dec. 21 to approve a variety of new spending measures and extend the state’s ban on residential evictions.
Reached Thursday morning, Nearman repeatedly declined to discuss the matter. Asked about the apparent footage, and whether he’d allowed demonstrators into the Capitol, he repeated: “I just don’t have anything to say.” Nearman asked who had told OPB there was surveillance footage.
It is not immediately clear if Nearman will face consequences within the House for the alleged actions. House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, has not responded to repeated questions about the matter.
A public records request for surveillance footage has not been fulfilled, and a legislative lawyer told OPB Wednesday the state might claim a public records law exemption that covers the legislative branch in the run-up to a legislative session.
While demonstrators were eventually cleared from the Capitol with little incident on Dec. 21, some in their number eventually clashed and used pepper spray against officers. Some vandalized the Capitol, breaking panes on glass doors. At least one man was captured on camera assaulting or intimidating members of the press who were on hand outside the building.
The demonstration was billed as a “flash mob” to protest the fact that the state Capitol is closed to the public during the pandemic, as well as to convey anger over business closures and other restrictions brought on by COVID.
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The incursion into the state Capitol will almost certainly be looked at in new light, after a mob of far-right supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, forcing both chambers of Congress to evacuate.
Even before that, Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney had pledged to take a hard look at Capitol safety rules, following the Dec. 21 event. Oregon State Police have confirmed that they are looking into who allowed people into the building, and that they were investigating whether a potential crime was committed.
Copyright 2021 OPB.