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Sexual harassment scandal reignites at Oregon Capitol

August 3, 2018
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FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2011, file photo, state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian speaks during an interview, in Portland, Ore. Avakian has accused political leaders in the Legislature and officials in the state Capitol of permitting "a generally hostile environment based upon sex." (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A Democratic leader of the Oregon Legislature rejected a call Thursday by the Republican candidate for governor to step down amid a sexual harassment scandal that cost one state senator his job and was reignited when a top official filed a complaint against legislative leadership.

The complaint Wednesday from Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian accused his fellow Democrats, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, of allowing a sexually hostile environment at the state Capitol and not acting fast enough to protect women from Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse.

Kruse resigned earlier this year as the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct swept politics, entertainment and other industries.

Rep. Knute Buehler, the Republican candidate for governor in this predominantly blue state, said Courtney and Kotek should step down from their leadership roles.

“Accountability and change begins with the people in charge who failed to prevent, failed to properly investigate and possibly covered-up serious allegations of sexual harassment within the Capitol,” Buehler said on Twitter.

“It’s really unfortunate that Rep. Buehler wants to play politics,” Kotek said. “I have no intention of stepping down.”

Courtney said in a text message to The Associated Press: “We take every complaint seriously. I encourage anyone with a complaint to come forward. We must do better.”

He also won’t step down, the Salem Statesman-Journal reported.

Kotek, in a conference call with journalists, said she always takes any complaints about harassment seriously and said Buehler was politicizing the situation.

“Let’s not politicize this. This is about people’s lives,” Kotek said. “We want a workplace that is respectful and safe, where everyone can do their best to help the people of Oregon.”

Buehler, who faces Democratic Gov. Kate Brown in the November election, said he was the first Republican lawmaker to call for Kruse to resign amid allegations he inappropriately touched two female senators and others at the Capitol.

Avakian’s complaint was filed on behalf of female interns for Kruse who had complained of unwanted touching and comments and two employees. None was identified.

Kruse announced his resignation in February, two days after the release of an independent investigation that found he had harassed women in the Capitol with prolonged hugging, groping and other unwelcome physical contact.

Avakian said that as early as March 2016, Courtney and Kotek “knew or should have known of Senator Kruse’s conduct and the broader sexually hostile environment in the Capitol, but did not take immediate and appropriate action.”

Avakian blamed them for allowing Kruse’s office to employ the two interns in late 2016 and early 2017.

Kotek said she had no authority over the Senate side. Asked if she would have been OK with female interns working for a House member accused of groping, Kotek said, “That person would have been in my office right away and we would have dealt with it.”

She said if Avakian’s complaint leads to an investigation that helps create a better atmosphere in the Capitol and better outcomes for victims, than she is open to it.

A culture in the Capitol that allows for such behavior remains, Kotek said, and needs to be changed.

“The ‘MeToo’ movement has woken everybody up that this is not OK behavior,” Kotek said.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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