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Regional Interests

Rep. Brad Witt did not intend quid-pro-quo in awkward text exchange, investigation suggests

Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, on the House floor at the Capitol in a file photo from Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.
Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, on the House floor at the Capitol in a file photo from Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

A Republican state representative who reported she was sexually harassed by a male Democratic colleague via text message in April “was not unreasonable” in coming to that conclusion and was shaken by the exchange, according to an independent investigator who looked into the matter. But state Rep. Brad Witt, the alleged aggressor, was equally credible when he explained he had no intention of trying to initiate a quid-pro-quo.

“Respondent did not intend to offer his vote on Complainant’s bill, in exchange for a date or sexual favors, or to comment on sexual matters,” the investigation concluded.

The undeniably strange text exchange will now be the subject of a June 1 hearing, where the House Conduct Committee will decide whether Witt’s written comments to state Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson on April 12 constituted a violation of the Legislature’s rules against harassment. In advance of that meeting, the investigation into the exchange was posted on the Legislature’s website on Wednesday morning.

“I’m gratified that the investigation dealt with the facts at hand and came to a conclusion on that basis,” Witt said in a statement. “I am looking forward to the final resolution on this matter in the near term and completing the work that lies ahead in this legislative session...”

Breese Iverson is less satisfied with the investigator’s conclusions.

“The report appears to justify Rep. Witt’s inappropriate actions with excuses,” she said in a statement. “Women deserve to be treated fairly and equally. We should not be subjected to unwanted, suggestive text messages. Rep. Witt knows what he did. I believe the text messages that were included as evidence speak for themselves.”

On the date of the exchange, screenshots show, Breese Iverson, R-Prineville, texted Witt, D-Clatskanie, to ask for his vote on one of her proposals, House Bill 2616. Witt responded that he could not support the bill, a proposal over water rights on a specific piece of land.

The two lawmakers went back and forth, before Witt diverted the discussion, texting: “We probably need to go for a beer sometime.”

Breese Iverson continued talking about the issue. Witt responded: “I’m not wedded to a beer by any means. Could be dinner or…...?”

“Or what?” Breese Iverson texted. Witt replied: “I’ve made two offerings. If you wanna meet, find something better than dinner or beer.”

“Trying to get a vote count,” Breese Iverson said.

Sarah Ryan, the private-practice attorney who conducted the investigation, made two essential findings in looking into this exchange. The first was that it rattled Breese Iverson, who is referred to as “complainant” in the report, and that her belief that Witt was making sexual or romantic overtures had a rational basis.

“Complainant understood the text messages to state that Respondent would not vote for her bill if she did not agree to a one-on-one ‘suggestive’ meeting with Respondent,” the report says. “Complainant also interpreted Respondent’s messages as sexual innuendo. Complainant’s interpretation is not unreasonable.”

According to five anonymous witnesses Ryan interviewed, Breese Iverson “was genuinely upset and offended by the text exchange, which she interpreted as sexual harassment.” Breese Iverson was also “visibly shaken” and “extremely anxious” to work with Witt in the three committees the two both sat on. That includes the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, on which Witt served as chair, and Breese Iverson serves as vice chair.

“I find that Complainant is accurately describing her interpretation of and reaction to the text exchange,” Ryan wrote.

But the investigation also found reason to believe that Witt did not intend to arrange a quid-pro-quo for his vote. Witt explained that he was hoping to mend fences in a relationship he felt had become needlessly contentious.

Witt told Ryan that he had supported many of Breese Iverson’s bills this session, but that she had consistently opposed his, and even worked against them.

“Respondent viewed Complainant’s efforts to thwart his legislative goals as highly unusual, particularly when directed by the vice-chair of a committee towards the chair,” the report says. It continues later: “Respondent further explained that he was surprised by Complainant’s April 12, 2021 text requesting his vote on a bill that he did not support, given his view of Complainant’s lack of support of his initiatives.”

By interviewing witnesses, Ryan wrote she was able to confirm that Witt had existing concerns about his relationship with Breese Iverson before April 12 and that he had been trying to schedule a meeting “in order to improve what he perceived to be a challenging working relationship.”

One other tidbit Ryan says she learned: Witt’s bad at texting.

“Several witnesses advised me that Respondent is ‘not a good texter,’” she wrote. “They stated that Respondent is often multi-tasking when he texts, and his intentions are sometimes hard to determine.”

Ryan concludes that Witt’s explanation of the text exchange was believable. “The explanation is not inconsistent with the language of the text message,” Ryan wrote.

Under the Capitol’s rules around harassment, Ryan was not tasked with making a recommendation as to whether Witt violated Capitol policy. That determination will be made by the House Conduct Committee, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, when it meets on June 1.

In a statement, Breese Iverson suggested the April 12 exchange “is not the first time” Witt had sent inappropriate texts, though she did not offer details or evidence about other allegations. “This abuse of power must have appropriate consequences if we can actually expect a safe working environment in the Capitol,” Breese Iverson said.

Witt said after the complaint was filed he believed “101% that it will be found that there was no ill intent on my part whatsoever, but rather an attempt to further the committee interests.”

As the investigation played out, Witt voluntarily stepped down from his chairship from the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He and Breese Iverson have been directed to have no contact with one another.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting