Brad Witt. Photo courtesy state legislative website.
Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) who was chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee has stepped down from his position but remains a committee member following a formal letter of complaint to the House Committee on Conduct claiming he sexually harassed Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson (R-Prineville).
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 timeline of events, according to Oregon House Republican Caucus spokesperson Andrew Fromm, started last Tuesday, April 13, when Breese-Iverson filed a formal sexual harassment complaint against Witt for actions she alleged occurred the day prior.
The House Committee on Conduct during a Friday, April 16 meeting heard the formal complaint during a hearing conducted over the Zoom platform. The committee also heard from an independent investigator, Sarah Ryan—the same attorney appointed by the Legislative Equity Office who examined sexual harassment accusations last February that lead to the resignation of Rep. Diego Hernandez—who said the investigation would take two weeks to complete, which Fromm characterized as “pretty quick.”
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Investigator Ryan also stated that Witt should be removed from his committee chair post during the investigation.
During the committee hearing, Rep. Julie Fahey (D-West Eugene) said she agreed to adopt the no-contact rule for Witt but that she disagreed with his complete removal from all three committees, a perspective with which Breese-Iverson disagrees.
Investigator Ryan said the accusations do not include a physical assault, which is the reason some Democratic lawmakers gave for not presenting Witt with a no-contact order, saying that because meetings are conducted via the Zoom platform in the COVID-19 era the two individuals are not likely to have any contact outside of official business – an assertion Breese-Iverson says does nothing to protect her from interaction with the accused.
Breese-Iverson says that’s not enough, and she requested Fromm to make public a letter she wrote to Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) condemning the House Committee on Conduct for not establishing a no-contact order for her against Rep. Witt, and that allowing him to continue serving on the same committees she does will not prevent him from communicating directly with her.
Breese-Iverson said in her letter to Kotek that allowing Witt to continue serving on three committees in which they work together, including the Committee on Water and the Committee on Business and Labor—the three committees on which Witt serves—does not protect her from interacting with Witt or her right to work in a safe environment.
She wrote in the letter to Kotek that “The quid-pro-quo he texted me is an inexcusable abuse of his power.” Neither Breese-Iverson nor Witt responded to calls regarding details of the alleged texting.
“The events of last Monday demonstrate a clear abuse of power and sexual harassment from one elected official with seniority or power over another,” Breese-Iverson’s letter said. “Despite the current measures, I argue additional interim safety measures are required in order to address the hostile work environment that exists while the investigation is being conducted.”
House Speaker Rep. Tina Kotek did not return phone calls asking why she wanted Witt removed from his chair position on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee but not from his membership roles in the three committees on which he continues to serve.
“Co-chair Fahey’s rejection of the independent investigator’s recommendation to temporarily remove Chair Witt from his committee shows a shameful disregard for the pressing need for interim safety measures to protect the victim,” House Minority Leader Christine Drazan said in a prepared statement. “This is a sham process if the committee rejects the recommendations of the independent investigator with no basis for that rejection. This is not, in fact, a “tricky situation” as co-chair Fahey indicated. It is traumatizing a victim and protecting those in power.”
Fromm said Breese-Iverson decided to come out with the letter to Kotek because she didn’t want to try to hide behind the process by remaining anonymous, and that she wanted to stand up and be a voice in public.
“When she sent the letter to the speaker she intended to give Speaker Kotek some time to respond but she also knows that in the end, this will require transparency and public pressure to create change,” Fromm said.
Rep. Zach Hudson (D-Troutdale) has been appointed interim chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources for the time being.
This story has been updated to reflect that Breese-Iverson requested Fromm publish the letter.