Oregon Rep. Mike Nearman intended to allow demonstrators to breach Capitol, new report suggests
State Rep. Mike Nearman “more likely than not” purposefully allowed far-right demonstrators into the locked Oregon Capitol in December as his fellow lawmakers met inside, an investigation has found.
That conclusion, reached in an investigatory report made public Wednesday, could pave the way for official findings that Nearman violated workplace rules when a committee takes up the matter on June 9. The hearing will dictate whether Nearman, a Polk County Republican, will face penalties as severe as expulsion from the Legislature for his role in the Dec. 21 incursion.
“The evidence supports a conclusion that it is more likely than not that Rep. Nearman intentionally aided demonstrators in breaching Capitol security and entering the building on December 21, 2020, when it was closed to the public,” says a seven-page report authored by private attorney Melissa Healy.
The report is the result of two complaints filed against Nearman in the aftermath of Dec. 21.
As lawmakers met in a special legislative session to take up COVID-19 relief that day, surveillance footage showed Nearman exiting the locked Capitol building into a throng of protesters who were trying to get inside the statehouse. In doing so, he appeared to purposely grant entrance to far right groups demanding an end to ongoing restrictions related to COVID-19.
Shortly after that breach, demonstrators scuffled with state troopers and Salem police. One man is accused of spraying officers with bear mace, allowing the crowd to make its way further into the building. Several people were arrested before the Capitol was cleared, and members of the crowd went on to shatter glass doors and assault journalists outside the building. Nearman, meanwhile, promptly walked around the building and entered on the opposite side less than six minutes after he exited, the report says.
Nearman’s involvement in the breach was first reported by OPB on Jan. 7, a day after an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Surveillance footage showing the incident was released the next day.
More than two-dozen Democratic state representatives filed a workplace complaint against Nearman on Jan. 12. The investigation says that David Hartsfield, the facility services manager at the Capitol, filed a complaint against Nearman on Feb. 23.
Healy’s report turns up few new details about the incident. Instead, it lays out the events that occurred, and points out that some demonstrators were armed with guns or carrying signs that appeared hostile to politicians. Healy says she interviewed seven Democratic representatives about their experiences on Dec. 21, and that they recalled seeing people “visibly distraught,” “uneasy” and “distracted” after the breach.
“Several mentioned the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, as an example of what could have happened in Oregon, and expressed concerns about Rep. Nearman’s continued presence in the Capitol in light of the serious threat that his actions presented,” the report says.
Healy also relied on Hartsfield’s reaction to the day’s events. “He said it was ‘terrifying’ when demonstrators entered the vestibule and observed that ‘no one’ could function or do their jobs while the confrontation was happening,” the report says.
Nearman would not answer the investigator’s questions at the advice of a lawyer, the report says.
It will ultimately be up to the House Conduct Committee, a four-member panel evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, to decide whether Nearman’s conduct violated legislative personnel rules and, if so, what the consequences should be.
While Healy was not tasked with recommending findings, her report appeared to be most concerned with whether Nearman’s actions could have amounted to creating a hostile workplace and harassment.
To the first possibility, which centers on impeding others’ ability to function in a work environment, Healy concluded it “is more likely than not” that Nearman’s action led to that outcome. She appeared to be less conclusive about whether Nearman’s actions amounted to harassment, which under legislative rules can include “threatening, intimidating or hostile acts that relate to a protected class.”
“It is outside my scope as a nonpartisan investigator to decide whether assisting a group of demonstrators who appear to have far-right political beliefs, in itself, constitutes discrimination based on a protected class,” she wrote.
Nearman continues to face consequences for the Dec. 21 incident outside of the internal complaint. He has been charged with two misdemeanors by the Marion County District Attorney’s Office in connection with the case. He has also been pulled off of legislative committees, surrendered his badge granting access to the Capitol, and must give 24 hours notice before entering the building.
Legislative administrators have also attempted to invoice him for damage to the Capitol on Dec 21.
Nearman has still played an active role in Salem, regularly appearing on the House floor to cast votes and occasionally speaking for or against bills.
He’s finding other ways to oppose Democrats’ legislative agenda, too. On Wednesday, Nearman and two other Republican representatives — David Brock Smith of Port Orford and E. Werner Reschke of Klamath Falls — filed a referendum to undo Senate Bill 554. The newly passed bill, signed by Gov. Kate Brown this week, will force gun owners to securely store their weapons when not in use, ban firearms in the state Capitol, and pave the way for schools and universities to enact gun bans.
The lawmakers and their supporters have until 90 days after the end of the legislative session to collect 74,680 valid signatures. If they succeed, voters will have an opportunity to undo SB 554 on the November 2022 ballot.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting