In her first detailed account of alleged harassment at the Oregon Capitol, state Sen. Sara Gelser says a fellow legislator touched her breasts and placed his hand on her thigh under a dais. And she says as many as 15 other women have also accused Sen. Jeff Kruse of unwanted touching.
Gelser, who has previously accused Kruse, R-Roseburg, of sexual misconduct filed a formal complaint on Wednesday.
Kruse has already been relieved of his committee assignments and had the door removed from his Senate office. Now Gelser is asking for his expulsion from the Senate.
Gelser said she felt compelled to make a formal complaint, which triggers a public investigation, after learning many other women have accused Kruse of similar behavior.
“Unfortunately, most of these women do not experience the privilege or safety I do in filing a formal complaint,” Gelser wrote in her letter to legislative leaders and human resource officials. “I cannot be fired. However, these young women may be concerned about the loss of job opportunities in the future if they are perceived as disloyal to a powerful figure in their party.”
Kruse has denied Gelser’s allegations.
A formal complaint sparks a special conduct committee that will publicly investigate the claims.
Last month, after reports that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused of harassing scores of women, Gelser accused Kruse of inappropriately touching her multiple times over a period of years. She initially declined to give details and filed an informal complaint, which does not spark a public exploration of the process.
In the letter, Gelser said the touching started in 2011. While on the House floor that year, Gelser wrote, Kruse approached her from behind her seat.
“He leaned forward from behind my back, and ran both of his hands and arms down my shoulders and across my breasts,” Gelser wrote. “He then crossed his arms over the front of my body and squeezed me in a hug with his hands on my hips. He then rested his head first on my head and then my shoulder.”
Gelser wrote that she was “stunned and frozen.”
After the incident, the Democrat from Corvallis said she tried to avoid Kruse. But that became more difficult in 2015 when she was elected to the state Senate and shared several committee assignments with Kruse, she wrote. She requested a seat change so she was not sitting next to Kruse. She would take the stairs to avoid the elevators and being in a small space with Kruse. She instructed her staff not to meet with him and to never send interns to his office.
“I experienced hugging, whispering that left my ear wet, and on at least one occasion he placed his hand on my thigh beneath the dais during the hearing,” Gelser wrote.
She detailed her colleague sitting so close to her, whispering in her ear that his tongue was in her ear and putting his hand on her shoulder, positioned so the palm was resting on her breast.
The letter states that colleagues, including former Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, intervened on her behalf. She detailed the unwanted touching to legislative counsel so they could ask Kruse to stop the touching. However, she said, the touching continued.
This year, she said she was on the Senate floor one day when Kruse wrapped his left arm around her shoulder but placed his hand so far over that his fingers touched the scar she has from a cardiac device on her left breast.
“He was turned close towards me, and his right hand was positioned on my thigh such that some fingers were on top of my skirt and some were under the hem of my skirt (there was fabric between his fingers). He was pulling me close towards him and again speaking in my ear so closely that my ear was wet. Again, taken by surprise, I was frozen,” Gelser wrote.
Another colleague, Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland intervened, Gelser wrote. Kruse told Burdick that Gelser didn’t mind the touching, according to Gelser’s letter. Gelser wrote she clearly stated to Kruse that the touching made her uncomfortable. This, she said, came after Kruse had already been spoken to by the Legislature’s lawyers.
Initially, Gelser was hoping to avoid a public process and said she simply wanted the touching to stop. But when the media started reporting the allegations generally, she said she heard from others who felt like they were not working in a harassment-free workplace.
“I have watched online and in the media as my integrity, my body, my clothing, my sexuality, my personality and even the sensory characteristics of my intimate body parts have been discussed and debated,” Gelser wrote. “All of this happened simply because I clearly stated that I should be able to go to work and not be touched without my consent.”
Filing a formal complaint sparks a special conduct committee, made up of lawmakers, to publicly investigate. For formal complaints, there is an independent fact-finding investigation by someone unaffiliated with the legislative branch — such as an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice. Investigators make a report to a special committee on conduct, which exists in both chambers, who then conduct what essentially amounts to a hearing. Both the accused lawmaker and alleged victim present testimony and witnesses to the committee.
Senate Republican Caucus Leader Jackie Winters said now that a formal complaint has been filed, there is a process in place. Winters cited the complaint when declining to comment further.
Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting