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Mike Nearman

 

SALEM -- A special committee of the Oregon House is now empowered to carry out its investigation of Rep. Mike Nearman in aiding anti-lockdown protesters to breach the closed Capitol during a Dec. 21 special session — and consider a recommendation for his expulsion from the House.

The House voted 43-16, with Nearman the only member excused, to give authority to the special committee named by House Speaker Tina Kotek. The action was required because most committees have been deactivated as the 2021 Legislature nears its scheduled June 27 adjournment.

The vote on the motion by Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, took place Tuesday.

Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, also introduced a resolution that would expel Nearman on grounds of "disruptive behavior" under the Oregon Constitution. A two-thirds majority (40) of the full House is required for expulsion, which has never happened in Oregon's 162 years of statehood.

A recommendation by the special committee would put the resolution directly to a vote of the House. The committee had not yet scheduled a meeting.

All 37 Democrats were joined by six Republicans on the vote: Cedric Hayden of Lowell, Bobby Levy of Cove, Rick Lewis of Silverton, Ron Noble of McMinnville, Kim Wallan of Medford and Suzanne Weber of Tillamook. Sixteen Republicans voted no; Nearman was excused.

Kotek, Smith Warner and nine representatives of color — all Democrats — already had urged Nearman to resign.

The 22 Republicans, in a letter released June 7, also called on Nearman to resign. They did so after the disclosure last weekend of video footage, during which he gives out his cell phone number to would-be protesters days before the planned special session and says "someone" might enable them to enter the Capitol from a specific door if a text message is sent.

Nearman, 57, is a retired software engineer who lives outside Independence. He is in his fourth term from House District 23, which takes in parts of four Mid-Willamette Valley counties.

Criminal charges

Nearman is already under indictment in Marion County Circuit Court on one count of first-degree official misconduct and one count of second-degree criminal trespass in connection with his opening a door to the northwest vestibule and allowing anti-lockdown protesters to enter the Capitol. Lawmakers were meeting in a one-day special session. The building itself has been closed to the public since March 18, 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Both are misdemeanor charges, maximum penalties for which are one year in jail and a fine of $6,250. Misdemeanor convictions, unlike felonies, do not result in automatic expulsion from the Legislature.

Nearman was identified in video surveillance footage as he opened the door to protesters, who police later ejected from the vestibule. Nearman then re-entered the Capitol from a southwest door about six minutes later.

The criminal proceeding is separate from the House's own disciplinary process.

Nearman had faced complaints pending in the House Committee on Conduct. But that committee has focused on complaints filed under a legislative rule that bars creating a hostile work environment. Even though the Senate and House have separate conduct committees created in 2018, the legislative rule is a joint one — and the legislative counsel's office, which advises lawmakers, raised questions about how the House committee might proceed.

Smith Warner said her motion applies only to the special committee, which is focused only on the events of Dec. 21.

Two Republican members of the new committee, who ended up voting no, raised questions of their own.

Rep. Daniel Bonham of The Dalles questioned whether the proceedings against Nearman should take place outside the regular process of the conduct committee. Rep. Duane Stark of Grants Pass said he was concerned how the House process might affect the criminal proceedings in Marion County Circuit Court.

Better alternative?

But Rep. Noble, a Republican from McMinnville who is co-leader of the conduct committee, said the special committee was the better alternative right now.

"Today we are faced with a process that would take up to a year or more" if it were left to the conduct committee, he said.

The Committee on Conduct earlier this year recommended the expulsion of then-Rep. Diego Hernandez after members concluded he committed 18 violations of the rule against creating a hostile work environment through sexual harassment. Hernandez, a three-term Democrat from Portland, resigned his seat before the full House voted on the recommendation.

Three representatives in other states have been expelled in recent years after accusations of sexual harassment. They are Luke Simons in North Dakota on March 4, and Steve Lebsock of Colorado and Don Shooter of Arizona, both in 2018.

Nearman mused during a June 7 interview with a Portland radio talk-show host that his name might someday end up as the answer to a question on the television game show "Jeopardy!" He also acknowledged his aiding of the protesters, but said Oregon State Police and Salem police failed to keep them out of the Capitol. Police eventually ejected protesters from the vestibule and blocked a second attempt by them to breach the double doors at the west entrance. Several people were arrested, some of them for assaulting news reporters and photographers outside the Capitol.

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