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Legislature objects to subpoenas in sexual harassment case

August 27, 2018

FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2011, file photo, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian speaks during an interview, in Portland, Ore. A law firm hired by Oregon's Legislature has formally objected to subpoenas for documents sought by Avakian, who had accused legislative leaders of permitting a culture of sexual harassment in the state Capitol. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, file)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Legislature is fighting attempts by the state’s labor commissioner to subpoena documents as he pursues senior lawmakers for allegedly permitting a sexually hostile environment in the Capitol.

The Legislature is committed to transparency, but the documents contain confidential information about people who came forward in harassment complaints and asked to remain anonymous, a lawyer whose firm is representing the Legislature said in a letter.

A copy of the letter, sent on Friday to members and staff of the Legislature by Edwin Harnden of the Barran Liebman law firm of Portland, was obtained by The Associated Press.

“The Legislature will protect the privacy of those individuals who disclosed personal information relating to harassment issues in the Capitol,” Harnden wrote.

On Aug. 1, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian filed a complaint with his own department accusing Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, both fellow Democrats, of allowing a sexually hostile environment and of being slow 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.

Kotek and Courtney have said they acted quickly when complaints emerged about Kruse, who an independent investigation determined had harassed women in the Capitol with prolonged hugging, groping and other unwelcome physical contact.

“The ‘MeToo’ movement has woken everybody up that this is not OK behavior,” Kotek told reporters on Aug. 2 in response to Avakian’s complaint. She said if it leads to an investigation that helps create a better atmosphere in the Capitol and better outcomes for victims, that she is open to it.

The complaint from Avakian, whose term ends at the end of the year, came as a surprise, and after Kotek and Courtney had already asked the Oregon Law Commission to review policies on harassment and recommend ways to improve them by year’s end.

Since the #MeToo movement caught fire, about half of all state legislatures in America have changed their sexual harassment policies, most often by boosting their own training, according to a 50-state analysis by The Associated Press published Sunday. The rest have done nothing this year.

Harnden on Friday sent a letter to Avakian’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, formally objecting to the subpoenas, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. Harnden’s letter to Capitol workers and lawmakers explained the reasons behind the objections.

“The information seeks highly confidential personally identifiable information about individuals who came forward in harassment complaints and asked to remain anonymous, and because the subpoenas are overbroad,” Harnden wrote. He said the objections are “a standard part of the administrative process under BOLI’s rules.”

The Legislature will respond to Avakian’s complaint on Friday, Harnden said.

It was filed on behalf of two female interns for Kruse who had complained of unwanted touching and comments, and on behalf of two employees. None was identified.

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

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