Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, last week was stripped of his committee assignments by Senate President Peter Courtney.
A letter from Senate President Peter Courtney to Kruse released to the media Tuesday confirmed other accounts that Kruse’s alleged unwanted touching of women and smoking in his office had become a chronic problem at the Capitol. Courtney ordered the door to Kruse’s Capitol office removed.
Kruse was previously reported for similar behavior in early 2016 and was directed to stop, according to legislative counsel Dexter Johnson.
Courtney described his action as an “unprecedented step.”
“I have never taken this kind of action before but I am left with no other options at this time to protect our employees, members of the legislature and the public,” Courtney wrote in the letter.
Legislative counsel is now performing its second informal inquiry into Kruse, who is accused of “inappropriate touching in a non-sexual way,” legislative counsel Dexter Johnson said Monday.
In the letter to Kruse Courtney said “two new incidents were brought to my attention,” and he reported them to Employee Services and Legislative Counsel.
When a reporter pressed Courtney in a phone interview Tuesday as to why action was not taken until last week, his spokesman, Robin Maxey, intervened.
“We are going to fall back on the statement issued previously,” Maxey said. “I know you have a copy of the letter sent to Sen. Kruse.”
Maxey referred to a letter Courtney sent to Kruse Oct. 20 informing him of his removal from four committees and that the door to his office was to be removed.
Asked again whether he had any explanation of why this was happening now, Maxey said, “Again we are going to have to fall back to the letter.”
Courtney did report the previous complaint to legislative counsel and Employee Services but did not sanction the senator at that time, Maxey explained later.
According to legislative counsel, in March 2016, Kruse was told to stop touching women at work.
At that time Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, had made an informal report about Kruse’s conduct.
Gelser confirmed to The Oregonian Monday that Kruse had touched her inappropriately but declined to discuss with the newspaper what specifically Kruse had done.
“I hope that what comes of this discussion is that it’s not about a set of experiences that I had, but about a culture that needs to change,” Gelser told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Monday.
Courtney said Kruse was already warned about his behavior when it came to treatment of women.
“Continuing to touch women at work is inappropriate workplace conduct of which you have already been warned,” Courtney wrote. “Let me be very clear. Women in the Capitol do NOT want you to touch them.”
Neither Kruse nor Gelser could be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, declined an interview request from the EO / Pamplin Capital Bureau Monday, but confirmed an account she provided to The Oregonian in which she recalled seeing Kruse wrap his arms around Gelser on the floor of the Senate.
Burdick told The Oregonian she told Kruse to stop.
Lore Christopher, the head of Employee Services, did not return a phone message or email seeking comment Monday.
Johnson said Monday evening that his office was conducting a new fact-finding inquiry to determine whether the more recent alleged conduct toward women occurred.
The news about the alleged harassment and the actions by Courtney did not emerge until this past week, as sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein prompted women all over the world to come forward with their experiences of sexual assault and harassment.
The issue came to light after Gelser, who has served in the legislature since 2005 and in the Senate since 2015, indicated on Twitter Thursday that she had been subject to harassment in the Capitol in response to a tweet from a Republican staffer.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day said that his office was aware of the allegations against Kruse.
“Currently, there is an ongoing investigation into these allegations, which we take seriously,” Ferrioli said in a prepared statement just before noon on Tuesday. “To our knowledge, there has been no formal complaint filed. Upon the conclusion of the investigation we will work within our process to resolve these issues in cooperation with human resources, legislative counsel, caucus leadership, and the Senate president. To respect the privacy of all parties, we will not comment further on the allegations.”
The Senate president has the authority to assign members to and remove them from committees.
Kruse was a member of the Senate Interim Committees on Health Care; on the Judiciary; and Education, as well as a newly created Task Force on Health Care Cost Review. The move effectively weakens Kruse’s power to influence policy.
The legislature’s policy for lawmakers accused of harassment is intended to provide both informal and formal “options to correct harassing conduct before it rises to the level of severe or pervasive harassment or discrimination,” according to a copy of the policy.
Within a year of the date of alleged harassment, a member of the legislature or an employee of the legislative branch may make an informal report to Employee Services or to legislative counsel’s office.
The report “must include specific details of alleged harassment,” including the name of the alleged harasser, and the date and times of alleged harassment.
When an informal report is made, the office that receives the complaint — Legislative Counsel or Employee Services — “shall immediately take appropriate action to ensure the reporting party has a safe and nonhostile work environment.”
This may mean moving the employee to a different supervisor or taking other measures.
With the permission of the person making the informal report, legislative counsel or employee services is to notify the leader of the same caucus as the alleged harasser of the report and who made it.
A formal complaint is more drastic. It must be in writing and includes the name of the person being accused of harassment and witnesses, as well as details about the alleged harassment and a description of the remedy.
An outside investigator conducts a fact-finding, which is then delivered to a legislative committee on conduct.
The committee can recommend reprimand, censure or expulsion, and after each party is given a chance to respond, the chamber votes whether to adopt the sanction recommended by the committee. It requires a two-thirds majority vote.