Oregon lawmakers hear bullying charge against gov candidate

Oct 19, 2022, 4:52 PM | Updated: 9:01 pm

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A former legislator told an Oregon House committee Wednesday that he was bullied by then-House Speaker Tina Kotek, the Democratic candidate for governor, to the point that he suffers from PTSD.

The hearing, held remotely via video, was emotional, with another former legislator testifying that the complainant, former Rep. Diego Hernandez, tried to kill himself recently.

“He called me,” former Rep. Brian Clem said haltingly as he tried to compose himself. “I went to his home. This is about a month ago. He had a broken belt. Luckily, the belt broke or he wouldn’t be here.”

The drama comes as Kotek, a Portland progressive who was the longest-serving speaker of the House in Oregon history, is in a tight race for governor against Republican nominee Christine Drazan. The race is tighter this year in this blue state because unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, a former veteran Democratic lawmaker, is also on the ballot.

Kotek, for her part, accused Hernandez of deflecting.

“Rep. Hernandez made this unfounded complaint a few days after an independent investigator concluded that he created a hostile work environment for women at the Oregon State Capitol,” Kotek wrote to the committee.

Hernandez, once considered a young, rising political star, filed a complaint against Kotek in early 2021, alleging that she created a hostile work environment for him during the 2019 legislative session. But an independent investigation carried out by a private lawyer hired by the Legislature exonerated Kotek.

“The evidence is insufficient to substantiate Hernandez’s complaint,” investigator Melissa Healy, a lawyer with a Portland firm, wrote in her draft report.

In an Oct. 3 message to the committee, Kotek said the report “is long overdue, but I’m satisfied by the clear conclusion that these were baseless accusations.”

Hernandez told the committee that Kotek had angrily threatened his bill to provide drivers licenses to Oregonians who arrived in the U.S. illegally unless he supported another bill to cut retirement benefits for the state’s public employees — a measure that eventually passed by the narrowest margin.

“I think out of all the messed up things the speaker said and did, the one that crossed the line is when she threatened to ruin my political career, that she’s going to make sure I lose my next election. She said this in rage,” Hernandez said. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m still recovering from PTSD and other traumas from my legislative experience with Tina,” Hernandez said. “To say her bullying and racism destroyed my soul is an understatement.”

He accused Healy, through her report, of attempting to normalize behavior in which legislative leaders would be allowed to use bullying, threats, intimidation, yelling and outbursts to achieve their goals.

According to Statehouse rules, the investigation of Hernandez’s complaint was supposed to have been completed within 84 days, but it took more than a year.

Clem, who like Hernandez is a Democrat, said he had pleaded with Healy to complete her investigation months ago because he didn’t want it to affect the elections.

Hernandez, who represented working-class neighborhoods of east Portland, announced in February 2021 that he was resigning, days before the House was scheduled to vote on whether to expel him. A panel of lawmakers had determined he created a hostile work environment for three women.

In her letter, Kotek said Hernandez’s complaint against her “was a blatant attempt to distract people from his own harmful behavior.”

She asked the committee to affirm the independent investigator’s findings.

After the hearing Wednesday, Kotek’s campaign declined to comment further to reporters.

The House Committee on Conduct must schedule another meeting to decide whether to accept Healy’s report, or consider taking action against Kotek.

Clem said he was nervous about testifying because he feared retribution. He testified from South Korea, where he said he was working on a project that could create thousands of jobs in Oregon, referring to plans for building a shipping container terminal at the port of Coos Bay, where Clem was raised.

“That project has to be permitted by the next governor,” Clem said. “I don’t want my participation (in the investigation of Kotek) to harm that project.”

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Oregon lawmakers hear bullying charge against gov candidate