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Democratic state rep threatens to leave party over handling of harassment investigation

The handling of a harassment investigation into Rep. Diego Hernandez has caused tension among Democrats.

PORTLAND, Ore — UPDATE: On Feb. 3, Rep. Mark Meek contacted KGW to say, "I am not switching party affiliations." KGW has reached out for more information but has not heard back.

Original story below: 

An independent investigation found that Oregon State Representative Diego Hernandez likely created hostile work environment for two women at the Oregon State Capitol after they tried to end romantic relationships with him.  

The report is dated January 22 and was first reported publicly by OPB on Monday.

On Tuesday, the handling of the investigation and allegations against Hernandez caused such tension among the Democratic Caucus that one state representative said he’s likely to change his party affiliation to “independent” as “soon as tomorrow.”  

In a phone interview, Rep. Mark Meek (D-Clackamas County) said there was a high chance he’d leave the party over this process. “Between one and ten? It’s an eight,” he said of the likelihood he’ll leave the Democratic party. 

Meek said he and other frustrated Democrats, whom he refused to name, support the women who raised concerns about Hernandez. They also support the investigation into his behavior, the findings of which will be turned over to the House Committee on Conduct next week. 

What they don’t support, he said, was House leadership – specifically Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) publicizing the investigation into Rep. Hernandez, calling for him to resign and removing him from committee hearings before the full process played out.  

Meek said passing premature judgment on Hernandez and enacting punishments, as a result, is an example of what can go wrong in a supermajority. 

“The system is broken, and they were out for Diego without due process,” Meek said. “I’ve been wrestling with this, watching and witnessing what our caucus means, what the supermajority means, and I’ve been in the supermajority. But do I think it’s healthy? No … Do I think our average citizen is heard and respected? No.” 

Meek said he had read the summary of the report into Hernandez’s conduct but not the full 33-page report. 

Kotek called for Hernandez to resign came in May of last year after the state’s Legislative Equity Officer and an independent investigator recommended that leaders take immediate actions to protect Hernandez’s accusers. 

In response to Meek’s claims, Kotek said via email “The conduct committee is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. This isn’t about politics. It’s about upholding a safe working environment in the Capitol. To suggest otherwise is offensive.”  

The frustrations boiled over a day after OPB first reported the news that the outside investigation found Hernandez likely created a hostile work environment for two women at the Capitol after they tried to end romantic relationships with him. Investigators found both women felt their careers were in jeopardy because of the breakups. 

RELATED: 7 people accuse Oregon lawmaker of sexual harassment, creating hostile work environment

One of the women told investigators that after she tried to end things, Hernandez texted and called frequently, left flowers on her car at the Capitol and showed up at her home unannounced, prompting her to hide in her closet where he couldn’t see her. Eventually, the woman told investigators, Hernandez stopped texting about their relationship and started sending texts criticizing her work performance. 

The investigation also found a third woman had reason to feel uncomfortable working around him after their relationship ended. Investigators wrote the representative sent her texts that could reasonably be interpreted as “controlling and abusive”. 

None of the women are named in the investigation. 

Hernandez, who won reelection in 2020, issued a statement on the investigation Tuesday. It read in part, “Dating when you are young is hard. Some dating relationships do not end definitively, but rather slip away over time. There is often some confusion, mixed signals, and strained emotions. To anyone I made uncomfortable in my personal life, I sincerely apologize.” 

The state representative went on to say he comes from “…poverty and a lot of trauma and it has taken me a long time to understand, grow and learn from it.” 

He ended the statement by saying he looks forward to presenting his rebuttal at next week’s conduct hearing, writing “Too often we have seen the conduct rules politicized, cases tried in the press, and punishment meted by leadership before investigations are complete … in reality it’s a fear-based system that traumatizes all sides in an unreasonably lengthy process that has no basis or intent in restorative, reconciliatory, or transformative justice.” 

Kotek issued a statement on the investigation as well, writing “I believed [the women] then and I believe them now. I’m focused on doing everything I can to ensure the Capitol is a safe working environment and that people can do their work without the threat of harassment or retaliation.” 

The investigation into Hernandez’s conduct is one of the first after lawmakers completed a massive overhaul of the state’s reporting and vetting system when it came to complaints about harassment in the workplace. That overhaul stemmed from a watershed moment in 2019 when a series of complaints from nine women who worked at the Capitol resulted in a $1.1 million settlement. 

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

This is not Rep. Hernandez’s first run-in with accusations of this type. He took a leave of absence from the Legislature after domestic violence allegations against him were made public earlier this year. 

A woman he had dated and lived with between January and April 2019 wrote he was prone to violent outbursts, including throwing things at her while under the influence. She said that he usually mixed “alcohol, narcotic pills and marijuana.” 

That woman, whom KGW is not naming, later requested a dismissal for the order after what she called “intimidation tactics” from Rep. Hernandez. She declined to comment for this story.


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