SALEM — State Sen. Sara Gelser Wednesday called for the expulsion of a fellow senator who she says for years subjected her to unwanted touching.
Gelser, D-Corvallis, filed a detailed formal complaint against State Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, a move that represents a step up from two separate informal reports she has made about Kruse’s behavior since early 2016.
She also alleged Wednesday that Kruse has inappropriately touched more than a dozen other women at the Capitol.
Kruse, contacted by the EO / Pamplin Capital Bureau while leaving the Senate Republican Caucus office Wednesday, declined to comment.
“I’m not going to say anything to anybody,” Kruse, who has denied allegations of inappropriate behavior in previous media interviews, said.
He added that since a formal investigation was ongoing, “we need to let the process work.”
Gelser’s complaint, provided Wednesday by the Office of Legislative Counsel, says Kruse repeatedly touched her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable.
Gelser and another female state senator who has not been identified had previously made informal complaints about Kruse’s behavior to the Legislature’s human resources and legal teams.
The informal complaint process is typically confidential. The allegations emerged publicly, though, in the past month, as more people who have experienced sexual harassment came forward with their experiences in industries ranging from politics to entertainment.
Until Wednesday, Gelser had been reluctant to publicly describe specifically what she had experienced, saying she did not feel she had to describe salacious details to be believed.
In her formal complaint, though, Gelser, who was elected to the Senate in 2014 and served in the House of Representatives prior to that, described multiple incidents where Kruse had touched her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable, going back to 2011.
She also described avoiding meetings with Kruse, taking the stairs instead of elevators to avoid him, and not allowing her staff or interns to meet with him to protect them from harassment.
Gelser described being “increasingly reluctant” to meet with Kruse because he touched her in “ways that made (her) feel uncomfortable.”
“This included hugs in which he pressed his full body against mine, wrapping his arm tightly around me, kissing my cheek, or whispering in my ear,” Gelser wrote. “I would step away from these behaviors but was concerned that I would offend or embarrass him by discussing the behavior. I simply tried to avoid meeting with him unless absolutely necessary.”
But, Gelser said, she could not avoid being on the House floor, where she said in 2011 Kruse approached her from behind and ran both of his hands and arms down her shoulders and breasts and “squeezed” her in a hug.
After this incident, Gelser said, she was more cautious about interacting with Kruse. She said elsewhere in the letter that she was reluctant to report his behavior and worried “coming forward” could affect her relationships in the Capitol.
Gelser also described how her experiences with Kruse impacted her work. For example, in 2013, Gelser said, she agreed to a meeting with him about a bill she said concerned protecting domestic workers from workplace abuse.
“I went to the meeting, but was frustrated that I had to put myself in a compromising position in order to try to pass legislation,” Gelser wrote.
When Gelser was elected to the Senate in 2014, she came into more regular contact with Kruse, whom she says subjected her to continued unwanted touching.
She described avoiding sitting next to him in committee hearings and another incident on the Senate floor in 2016, which she said was witnessed by then-Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene.
Kruse, Gelser said, was seated to her right and placed his hands on her shoulders, low enough that his palms were near her breasts.
“He leaned in his face very close to me and started speaking,” she wrote. “I was frozen as it was a very intimate and unwanted pose.”
Edwards, who was seated to Gelser’s left, then approached Gelser and said he had to speak to her urgently, and at that point Kruse walked away. Edwards then told her that he didn’t need to speak to her but wanted to stop Kruse.
“By the time that Sen. Edwards intervened, I was convinced that something had to change,” Gelser wrote. After expressing her concerns with the Senate president’s chief of staff, Gelser reported the incident informally to Employee Services and legislative counsel, saying in her complaint that she “just wanted the behavior to stop.”
But in the 2017 session, the behavior continued, Gelser said, even though after her 2016 complaint Kruse was warned to stop. She again made an informal complaint, and that investigation concluded this week.
“I am deeply concerned that the investigation suggested that this is a pervasive problem and that Sen. Kruse’s conduct has impacted many women,” Gelser wrote. “It is my understanding that at least 15 women have disclosed unwanted touching or other behaviors from Senator Kruse that violate the harassment-free workplace rule.”
Gelser also said that the Capitol is a place of public accommodation that should be safe for everyone.
Formal complaints of harassment against a member of the legislature must be in writing and trigger an outside investigation.
Now that Gelser has filed a formal complaint, legislative counsel has ten days to select an outside investigator to conduct a fact-finding. The investigator then has 60 days to make a draft report.
The draft report should then be provided to both Gelser and Kruse, as well as employee services and legislative counsel, each of whom can request changes. The special committee on conduct holds a public hearing on the final report between 14 and 45 days after receipt of the final report.
The special committee in turn makes a recommendation to the Senate as a whole. Actions can include censure, reprimand and expulsion, or the Senate can vote to take no action. A two-thirds vote is required.
Gelser, contacted through her legislative office, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Kruse has already faced more informal sanctions as a result of the allegations.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, last month relieved the Roseburg senator of his committee assignments and had the door of his office removed.
The actions were also taken in response to the Senator’s continued smoking inside the capitol building, Courtney said in a letter to Kruse Oct. 20.
State Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, who was named Senate Minority Leader Wednesday, declined to comment.
However, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, the only Republican to hold statewide elected office in Oregon, said in a statement that if the investigation finds the allegations to be true, Kruse should resign.
Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said in an interview Tuesday that it would be inappropriate to comment on the allegations against Kruse further, in part because as of Tuesday afternoon, no formal complaint had been filed.
But Ferrioli said that more people in the state Capitol were talking about the issue of sexual harassment, and that “we’re taking a lot of interest and we’re putting a lot of effort into addressing those issues.”
“There’s a lot more intensity in the conversations and people are taking it seriously,” Ferrioli said.