Recently elected State Senator Shemia Fagan was the lone Democrat to vote against the reelection of Peter Courtney for Senate President yesterday.
Explaining her vote, which took place on the opening day of this year’s Oregon State Legislature session, Fagan said she could not vote for a leader “credibly accused of abusing power by a woman who is afraid to come forward.”
Shemia Fagan: “I believe her.”
On January 3rd the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) issued a damning report on lax standards for sexual harassment in the Oregon State Senate.
As well as calling out several Senators by name, including Courtney, the five-month investigation concluded the Oregon State Senate is a “hostile workplace.”
“BOLI interviewed a former employee who testified that Senator Courtney disapproved of who she was dating and gave her an ultimatum to resign or be fired. She resigned with five months of severance, health insurance, and a promise not to sue. In short, she accused President Courtney of a gross misuse of power. I believe her. For this reason, I voted no on his nomination for Senate President….
“I believe it will be harder for us to address the urgent challenges facing Oregon families –the housing crisis, climate change, gun violence and our underfunded schools – with a cloud of credible allegations hanging over our leader.”
While acknowledging the right of the accused to a presumption of innocence, Senator Fagan argued that her vote was not an attempt to convict Courtney of a crime:
“Today is not a courtroom. If any analogy is appropriate, today is a boardroom. As members of the board, we are electing a person to chair the board and steer our organization through a crisis largely of our own making.”
Peter Courtney under pressure
The public stance taken by Shemia Fagan puts the conduct of Peter Courtney, already under scrutiny, further into the spotlight.
The staffer Fagan referred to is believed to have dated a member of the Oregon House of Representatives. When Courtney learned of the relationship he immediately offered his employee three options: resignation, demotion, or termination.
The BOLI report contrasted this action with Courtney’s treatment of a male employee. Courtney decided not to discipline his spokesperson Robin Maxey after he was accused of sexual harassment (Maxey has since resigned, following the BOLI report publication).
Courtney told Willamette Week that he has done nothing wrong.
Oregon Senate’s hostile environment
Peter Courtney’s desire to control the relationships of his female employees is not the only problem uncovered by the January 3rd BOLI report.
Much of the public discussion since the report’s publication has centered on the harassment of Senator Sarah Gessler by former Senator Jeff Kruse.
When Gessler came forward with the allegations she says she was marginalized by Democratic party leaders, including Peter Courtney. Courtney allegedly yelled at Gessler in a café during a discussion of the situation.
Sexual harassment is not the only problem contributing to complaints of harassment at the Oregon Senate. In December Courtney issued a formal letter to Republican Senator Brian Boquist, who he said “communicated with members and staff in a way that creates a hostile and intimidating workplace.”
Boquist was also reprimanded for sliding anonymous packets of paperwork under the office doors of his Senate colleagues.