SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) – A female state senator who accused a male colleague of inappropriate touching says she heard accounts from other women in the Oregon State Capitol of such behavior by men.
Democratic Sen. Sara Gelser said Monday that women told her about being touched too long, pulled in too close in an embrace, and even feeling a hand on them under the table during committee hearings. She identified Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse — who represents Roseburg — as the colleague she had made a complaint about.
Kruse, whose committee assignments were removed last week as a punishment, says he hasn’t been informed what he’s accused of, and that he’s been denied due process.
Kruse says he’s been denied access to any of the specifics of the allegations.
“Let me be very clear. Women in the Capitol, do NOT want you to touch them.”
In a letter obtained by KOIN 6 News, Peter Courtney, who is president of the Oregon Senate, wrote to Kruse on October 20 over 2 issues: smoking in his office and inappropriately touching women.
“This week I was made aware that your behavior toward women in the workplace has also gone unchanged,” Courtney wrote. “You were instructed in March of this year by Lore Christopher, Employee Services Manager, and Dexter Johnson, Legislative Counsel, that you were not to touch women at work. Period. … “Let me be very clear. Women in the Capitol, do NOT want you to touch them.”
The full letter from Sen. Courtney is below
Johnson later clarified the date to be March 2016, not March 2017. As far back as May 2016, Kruse was in trouble for smoking in his office.
Kruse was also removed from committees on education, health care, judiciary and a task force on health care costs.
Statements from legislators
In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Sen. Gelser said:
I was one of the individuals who initiated complaints of inappropriate physical contact under PR 27 in 2016 and 2017 that were referenced in the published letter from President Courtney. I have been grateful to the professional response my complaints have received from Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan legislative leadership.
Issues of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching are not partisan issues. They are workplace issues. Far too many people are disrupted from doing their work by inappropriate touching and sexual harassment, and I hope that will change. I am committed to ensuring that all us have safe and respectful workplaces. I urge anyone experiencing sexual harassment or inappropriate touching in the workplace to seek assistance through their office personnel process. To these individuals I would say: “You have done nothing wrong. You have nothing to be embarrassed about. You deserve to work in a safe environment.”
Tuesday afternoon, Governor Kate Brown issued this statement:
“Recently, we have seen a tidal wave of women speaking out and standing up against harassment, discrimination, and abuse. As examples of these issues have again stoked a national dialogue, it is all too clear that no workplace or community is immune to them — sadly even in our state capitol. This behavior must be stopped, and I applaud the courage of those who brought these allegations to light.
“We should also acknowledge the women who everyday are experiencing harassment and for fear of losing their jobs, families, or even lives, are not empowered to take a public stand against it.
“This is absolutely unacceptable, and it is long past time for these issues to be openly discussed and directly addressed. Every woman deserves to be respected and has the right to live, work, and simply walk down the street safely.”
In a statement, Ted Ferrioli, the Oregon Senate Republican leader, said:
“We are aware of the letter from President Courtney to Senator Kruse, and the allegations that have been reported. Currently, there is an ongoing investigation into these allegations, which we take seriously. To our knowledge, there has been no formal complaint filed. Upon the conclusion of the investigation we will work within our process to resolve these issues in cooperation with human resources, legislative counsel, caucus leadership, and the Senate President. To respect the privacy of all parties, we will not comment further on the allegations.”
‘I hope it turns into, instead of the exception, the rule’
Brenda Tracy is a sexual assault survivor and activist who’s been successful in getting laws passed in Oregon designed to help victims. She said she wasn’t surprised about the incident regarding Kruse as he made her feel “uncomfortable” when they worked together several times on legislative work.
“My interaction with him…I always felt was slightly inappropriate and I was always a little uncomfortable around him,” Tracy said.
She also said he made it clear that he was “interested” in her.
Tracy went into more detail about their encounters saying his hugs and stares were “too long,” and he asked questions that Tracy felt were inappropriate and didn’t have anything to do with the work.
Tracy said she’s proud of Gelser for coming forward saying she “gives strength and courage” for other women to share their stories.
“I think this is our watershed moment,” Tracy said. “I hope this moment continues. I hope it turns into, instead of the exception, the rule.”
KOIN 6 News reached out to Kruse for comment, but he has not responded at this time.
The Associated Press contributed to this report