A state investigation released on Jan. 3 revealed new details regarding previous accusations of misconduct against State Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis).
According to documents from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), the Capitol is a workplace that struggles with harassment allegations that have at times been questionably handled by government leadership.
A BOLI investigation found the lack of action against accused legislators has created a hostile work environment in the state legislature, leaving the Capitol open to potential lawsuits and other complaints. Gomberg is referenced on five pages of the 52-page report.
The investigation began in August of 2018, when then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian filed a complaint with his own agency alleging that legislative leadership should have acted on allegations of a sexually hostile environment.
The BOLI report included complaints made to the House speaker’s office about Gomberg in 2013. House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) told Gomberg “his behavior is not acceptable and he needs to change,” according to the report. The report also said Kotek required Gomberg to report back to her with “a plan to get professional help.”
According to the BOLI report, multiple individuals accused Gomberg of unwanted touching and making inappropriate, sexualized comments such as telling a young woman she should “get ready for her birthday spanking,” and also allegedly joking about introducing an intern on the House floor as a “poll [sic] dance & stripper.”
Gomberg told the Headlight that the recently released report was the first time he had seen any specific details regarding the 2013 incidents.
Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson concluded that claims Gomberg made a woman feel uncomfortable due to physical contact such as shoulder rubbing and trying to hug her did not constitute harassment and could be dealt with internally, according to the BOLI report.
However, documents indicate that Kotek believed Gomberg’s alleged actions “contribute to and create a hostile work environment for women who work in his building” including staff and lobbyists.
BOLI found that legislative leaders did or should have known about numerous instances of misconduct at the Capitol, citing specifically that allegations against Gomberg involved multiple victims who were working in multiple offices at the Capitol.He admitted to having made some remarks in a crowded room which would have included multiple individuals.
The BOLI report also said retaliation was potentially an issue for those who reported harassment or misconduct. In one section, the report referred to documents appearing to indicate a woman claiming Gomberg made inappropriate comments was not comfortable talking about it because "he's retaliatory – doesn’t take pushback well.”
Gomberg told the Herald it was not clear this section applied to him. “The BOLI report is a jumble of details taken from thousands of pages of documents.” Gomberg said. “It is difficult to follow the narrative or the context, and honestly, I do not agree with everything published there. In particular, the report says nothing about me apologizing as soon as I was informed by the Speaker and later apologized publicly.”
In summary comments, the BOLI report said the agency’s Civil Rights Division found substantial evidence that sexual harassment had occurred repeatedly at the Capitol for a period of years, also finding a history of failed responses to complaints and a lack of corrective actions. A chilling effect was reportedly created by the power imbalances between legislators and those whose careers they might affect.
“A culture where a victim who is unable to prove what happened to them can reasonably fear being called a liar, or being sanctioned, is an optimal environment for harassment,” the BOLI report stated, adding that other victims of sexual harassment might conclude that the risk of reporting misconduct is too great after observing how matters are handled.
Following revelations of the accusations against Gomberg and others in October of 2017, the state representative issued a statement hoping to explain what he called his own involvement. Gomberg offered an apology to those he had offended or caused discomfort.
“Speaker Tina Kotek made me aware on two occasions that my behavior made others uncomfortable,” Gomberg wrote. “These incidents took place in 2013 and in 2015.”
Kotek did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding the BOLI report.
Gomberg said he did not know the names or until now, the details regarding the informal, confidential complaints against him other than they involved either inappropriate humor or touching.
“I understand the touching was not perceived as sexual but rather involved ‘personal space,’” he wrote. “I come from a family, a business environment, and in fact, a generation where hugging is normal and generally appreciated.”
Gomberg went on to acknowledge that different people have different standards, adding that etiquette changes as time passes. He said the “new era of people coming forward” was raising awareness that actions “intended innocently may be understood as having an uncomfortable or unwelcome impact.”
“I hope we will all be better off because of this increased sensitivity,” Gomberg wrote.
Gomberg wrote that after he spoke with the Kotek, he took “serious and immediate steps to understand and adjust” his behavior. In his statement, Gomberg apologized for offending the two women whose complaints were initially carried in news reports. He said he was humiliated by the publicity and he regretted the affect on his wife, Susan.
“I believe everyone is entitled to a workplace free of discomfort and harassment,” he wrote. “You should expect the highest model of behavior from your elected officials and I have worked hard to attain and maintain that standard.”
After the January BOLI report was released, Gomberg said the matter had been resolved to the satisfaction of those involved. He highlighted his immediate action upon being informed of the complaints, including professional training, as well as apologizing.
“I was informed that the people involved had accepted my apology, and that the matter was resolved,” Gomberg told the Headlight. “The Speaker came to me with a very serious concern and I addressed it with equal seriousness.”
Gomberg said the upcoming legislative session would begin with a full week of training that addresses questions of workplace behavior and sensitivity. He reiterated that he comes from a “hugging generation, a hugging community,” and said he wasn’t sensitive enough to the fact that it might make some uncomfortable.
“I have learned from my experience – I don’t start hugs anymore, but I’m certainly happy to finish them,” he said.