Government, politics, Salem

Rep. Brad Witt removed from chair position following harassment complaint

A campaign sign for Rep. Brad Witt in Manning on October 28, 2020. Photo: Chas Hundley

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), officially removed Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) from his role as chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Monday, in the latest development after Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson (R-Prineville) filed a formal harassment complaint about text messages Witt sent in April.

Witt voluntarily stepped down from the position on a temporary basis while the complaint was being investigated on April 16, after Breese-Iverson said Witt sent her sexually harassing text messages on April 13 in a report filed the next day. Breese-Iverson is the co-chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. 

Witt and Breese-Iverson also work together on two other committees and Breese-Iverson wanted him removed from all three, although Kotek allowed Witt to retain his membership on each committee. Kotek’s Chief of Staff Lindsey O’Brien did not return requests for comment Tuesday, nor did Breese-Iverson’s office.

Witt’s House District 31 covers all of Columbia County, portions of Multnomah County, and a part of western Washington County, including portions of Buxton, Manning, and Mountaindale.

The Oregon House Committee on Conduct met Friday to discuss possible discipline for Witt after discussing a report by independent investigator Sarah Ryan on June 1. The committee found Witt had violated Rule 27, which prohibits discrimination and harassment in the statehouse, during the June 1 meeting. 

Ryan, a Portland attorney, was appointed by the Legislative Equity Office to examine sexual harassment allegations against former Rep. Diego Hernandez in February.

The committee voted to recommend Witt receive coaching and training to deter further instances but disagreed along party lines for further actions. Rep. Ron Noble (R-McMinnville), and Rep. Raquel Moore-Green (R-Salem), advocated for more extensive punishment than Rep. Julie Fahey (D-West Eugene), and Rep. Tawna Sanchez (D-Portland).

Rep. Suzanne Weber (R-Tillamook) said Witt’s actions made many in the capitol, particularly women, feel unsafe.

“Just as I supported measures stripping a Republican legislator of his committee assignments, and the creation of a committee to address how he caused an unsafe environment for those who work in around the Legislature, the same should occur for Representative Witt,” Weber said in a statement Tuesday. “This isn’t a political game.”

Weber, who represents Gales Creek as part of House District 32, said it’s irrelevant what party someone belongs to in this instance because when an “elected official threatens the safety of those with whom they work, they cease to be an effective legislator and become a distraction to the work of the legislative committees of which they are a member.”

“The Legislature has made bipartisan strides in ensuring the Capitol is a safe and equitable place to work,” Weber concluded the statement. “What occurs next will determine whether that work had meaning, or if it was simply political theater. I truly hope it is the former.”

Witt’s office did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

The interaction in question began when Breese-Iverson asked Witt to vote in favor of a bill via text message, which spurred brief debate about the bill. During the conversation, Witt abruptly wrote they “probably need to go for a beer sometime.” Breese-Iverson ignored the comment and proceeded to send another text message about the bill. Witt responded by saying he’s not “wedded to beer by any means,” adding “could be dinner or…… ?” 

Breese-Iverson responded asking Witt “or what?” 

“I’ve made two offerings,” Witt wrote in response. “If you wanna meet, find something better than dinner or beer.”

Breese-Iverson told Investigator Ryan she believed Witt was attempting to initiate a quid-pro-quo arrangement in which Breese-Iverson would trade a date or sexual favors in exchange for a vote in favor of the bill. Ryan’s report said witnesses around Breese-Iverson at the time of the exchange described her as “visibly shaken,” and “very emotional when (Breese-Iverson) shared that the text exchange made her feel weak and intimidated.” Breese-Iverson told the House Committee on Conduct that she avoided leaving her office after the text exchange in fear of running into Witt.

Witt told Investigator Ryan he was attempting to set up an in-person meeting with Breese-Iverson to “discuss what he perceived to be a challenging working relationship,” according to the report. Witnesses close to Witt told Investigator Ryan that Witt had made other attempts to set up a meeting with Breese-Iverson for the purpose of addressing their working relationship, including attempts made through staff, something Breese-Iverson disputed during testimony before the House Committee on Conduct on June 1.

Investigator Ryan concluded Breese-Iverson was reasonable in her interpretation of Witt’s statements, but also found Witt’s “explanation of his intentions with regard to the text exchange believable.”

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