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Million dollar settlement reached for 9 victims of alleged sexual harassment in the Oregon Capitol

According to a release, a total of $1,121,612 will go to nine women who "experienced harm during their time at the State Capitol."

PORTLAND, Ore. — A settlement has been reached between the Bureau of Labor and Industries, the Oregon Legislature and victims of alleged sexual assault within the Oregon capitol.

According to a release, a total of $1,121,612 will go to nine women who "experienced harm during their time at the State Capitol." Taxpayer dollars allocated to the Legislature will pay out the settlements. 

The Legislature will also pay $200,000 for BOLI's attorney fees.

This comes following allegations, which began with Senator Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, then other employees and former interns, of sexual harassment against former Sen. Jeff Kruse.

Gelser's complaints launched a five-month investigation by the BOLI. The bureau released a report which found the Oregon Capitol to be a hostile work environment that did little to stop sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Gelser is listed as one of the nine victims in the settlement, but she will not receive damages; only her lawyers' fees will be reimbursed. 

RELATED: Sexual harassment culture still at Oregon Capitol, lawmaker says

In an interview with BOLI, Gelser described feeling marginalized by powerful Democrats in the state for how they reacted when she accused Kruse of touching her breast and placing his hand on her thigh under a dais. 

Kruse was forced to resign.

Then, in February, a suit was filed by two women who had been interns for Kruse. He is accused of repeatedly sexually harassing them. Top officials in the Capitol are accused of being aware of the harassment and doing nothing to stop it. 

“It was blatant,” said Annie Montgomery, one of the women victims of the alleged sexual harassment who is filing suit. “It happened in front of other people. People make jokes about it.”   

RELATED: Interns file suit against former Oregon Sen. Jeff Kruse for sexual harassment

Click here to read the settlement in full.

Audrey Mechling is one of the victims of alleged sexual harassment in the Capitol. She claimed she was abused and harassed by a Capitol intern and filed a formal complaint. She will receive $10,000 in the settlement.

She said she felt the Capitol wasn't there for her when she needed them, echoing the sentiments of Montgomery and Martin-Wyatt whose lawsuits this settlement covers.

"I don’t think women are going to be in a safer place until we have leadership that commits to changing the culture inside the capitol," said Melchin. "When Senate President Peter Courtney says that what he’s learned from sexual harassment training is he needs to say “hello” and “goodbye” to staff, it tells me he’s not taking it seriously."

Melching said she doesn't believe that the settlement shows real commitment to change, rather that the Capitol wants to move forward from the issues surrounding former Senator Kruse.

"I think it shows the Capitol values moving forward from the Sen. Kruse incident because it was high profile, because the media paid attention. But it doesn’t show real commitment to change for the day-to-day harassment that staffers experience every single day inside the capitol."

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney released the following statement about the settlement:

“On behalf of the Oregon Legislature, we sincerely apologize to the women who suffered harm during their time in the Capitol.

"Everyone working in or visiting the State Capitol deserves to feel safe and respected. We remain committed to improving the Capitol’s workplace culture and are working hard to implement that change during the ongoing legislative session, following the recommendations of the Oregon Law Commission.”

BOLI Commissioner Val Hoyle said in a written statement:

“This settlement ensures that the injured parties have their harms addressed. It puts in place requirements and processes that, when fully implemented, will improve the Capitol as a workplace and will provide appropriate support to workers who may have issues in the future.

“Those victims could only have had their harms addressed through a BOLI Commissioner’s complaint. I’m pleased that we were able to provide them access to justice.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreement between BOLI, the Capitol and the victims: 

  • The state Legislature will pay a combined $1.1 million in non-economic damages to eight aggrieved parties who worked at the Capitol in a variety of roles but were not elected officials. The largest individual damages award is $415,000. The names and other personal identifying information of the aggrieved individuals that are party to the settlement will not be released publicly in order to protect their privacy.
  • The Legislature will pay state Senator Sara Gelser $26,612 to reimburse her for attorney’s fees and other out-of-pocket expenses. These were the only monetary damages sought by Sen. Gelser.
  • All aggrieved parties involved in this settlement have agreed to release the Legislature of any future claims or litigation. That includes the civil lawsuit that was filed last month in Marion County Circuit Court.
  • The offices of Legislative Counsel and the Legislative Administration will not handle any future complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment at the Legislature. The Legislature must hire an outside attorney, subject to BOLI review and input, to handle any complaints filed until its new Equity Office is established.
  • The Legislature will adopt the Oregon Law Commission’s recommendations for improving its workplace protections. Those recommendations include the creation, by this summer, of a new Equity Office to handle workplace harassment complaints. New processes will be established for training about workplace behavior, for handling complaints and for protecting potential victims through that new office. If new systems and structures aren’t put in place, BOLI retains the right to file formal charges.
  • The Legislature will not engage in any unlawful retaliation or discrimination against any aggrieved persons for participating in the investigation of the BOLI complaint.
  • BOLI will dismiss its contempt of court proceeding against the Legislature in Multnomah County Circuit Court, which was linked to the underlying complaint. The Legislature will pay BOLI $200,000 to partially cover the agency’s outside attorneys’ fees in the contempt proceeding.
  • The agency also acknowledges that its complaint process in this instance was politicized in a manner that inhibited both sides from participating thoroughly in the investigation last year. Commissioner Hoyle is committed to strengthening an atmosphere of impartiality, fairness, and trust to all who participate in agency investigatory processes.

The attorney for the interns who filed suit against former Sen. Kruse and the Capitol for the repeated sexual assault they experienced while working at the Capitol released a statement that reads in part:

"They hope that by coming forward, their experiences will foster a new environment where the integrity and safety of women are taken seriously, and where they are offered support when harassment occurs. They hope that this settlement helps to shift the power differential at the Capitol to one toward transparency and equality."

Click here to read the statement.

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, responded to the settlement and said:

“Discrimination and harassment have no place at the Oregon State Capitol. Our workplace must be an environment where Oregonians of all backgrounds can come together to participate in their government. As co-chair of the Capitol Culture Committee, I am working hard with a bipartisan group of colleagues to improve our workplace by enacting the recommendations of the Oregon Law Commission Work Group’s report. Our new laws and rules will make the Capitol more inclusive, equitable and accountable.

But the changes we make this session must go beyond legislation and rules. The work group’s report emphasized one key point: ‘The strongest policy imaginable will ultimately be ineffective unless and until there is a genuine and sustained effort to change the Capitol culture.’”

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