The Oregon Legislature’s longtime human resources director was deservedly criticized for her handling of sexual harassment cases at the State Capitol. Yet Lore Christopher received a sweet deal for retiring at the end of 2018, including the opportunity to work from home at $12,116 a month through August 2019.
Why? The Legislature’s elected leaders have mostly been mum. This matters because their silence contradicts their professed commitment to improving the workplace culture around the Legislature, including transparency and accountability.
Christopher announced her retirement last October, writing in part, “I have committed to be here, on board, to manage a successful transition and to help guide the Employee Services team through August of 2019 to complete the pay equity implementation, reconsideration process and other ongoing critical projects during the on-boarding of the next human resources director.”
At the time, her retirement seemed a natural occurrence despite the turmoil engulfing the Capitol. Only through the dogged reporting of EO Media Group’s Claire Withycombe have Oregonians now learned that Christopher would be paid this year for working from home and that — in the “Retirement and Transition Agreement” she signed in September — she had waived any right to sue for age discrimination.
The Legislature still has made no public announcement about Christopher’s circumstances or whom to contact about sexual harassment issues until lawmakers establish their planned Equity Office, which would handle such complaints. Interim HR Director Jessica Knieling did notify legislators and staff on Thursday that two law firms had been retained “to handle any investigations into allegations of harassment or discrimination.” (The lawyers are Sarah J. Ryan at Jackson Lewis P.C. and Brenda K. Baumgart at Stoel Rives. Both firms have Portland offices.)
Knieling took over the HR job on March 11, coming from the state Department of Administrative Services, where she was a top HR administrator. Legislators called her “a breath of fresh air” when she met Wednesday with the Joint Committee on Capitol Culture.
The legislative committee is making solid progress on implementing the recommendations of the Oregon Law Commission, as required by the $1.3 million settlement that House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney recently signed with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries.
The settlement included this provision: “The offices of Legislative Counsel and Legislative Administration will have no role in handling investigations related to discrimination and sexual harassment.” That declaration seems a tacit admission that legislative management, including the human resources office, lacked credibility and expertise. In hindsight, the blame rests not only on the paid management but also on Kotek, Courtney and their predecessors, who failed to recognize or ignored the profound deficiencies in how the Legislature prevented, investigated and corrected sexual harassment.
The retirement agreement with Christopher appears to reflect that attitude. She was to retire as HR director on Dec. 31, 2018, or when her successor was named, whichever was later, in which case her title as of Jan. 2, 2019, would be “acting human resources director.” Her last day working in the Employee Services Office was to be Dec. 31, or a mutually agreed date.
Once a new HR director was in place, Christopher was to work from home through August 2019 as an HR special projects coordinator and continue receiving her $12,116 monthly salary, as well as such benefits as medical insurance and vacation.
Questions persist. If Christopher was good at her job, why this sweetheart deal? If she was not good at her job — as was alleged by some who said they endured sexual harassment — why this sweetheart deal?
It also is galling that legislative management made the nice retirement deal with the departing HR director in September at the same time the legislative leadership was fighting BOLI’s investigation, claiming it was reckless and political.
Political? To some extent. Reckless? Definitely not. The proof lies in the $1.3 million settlement.