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Rep. Nearman defends his opening Oregon Capitol door to protesters
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Rep. Nearman defends his opening Oregon Capitol door to protesters

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Embattled state Rep. Mike Nearman offered his first response Tuesday night to disclosures that he let anti-lockdown protesters enter the closed Capitol during a Dec. 21 special session of the Legislature.

The Republican from Independence, who represents much of rural Benton County, made no apologies for his action.

"I do think that when … the Oregon Constitution says that the legislative proceedings shall be 'open,' it means open," he said in a statement. "And as anyone who has spent the last nine months staring at a screen doing virtual meetings will tell you, it's not the same thing as being open."

The Capitol has been closed to the public since March 18, 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The House adopted rules for the 2021 session, which started Monday, that make all committee hearings virtual — over the objections of minority Republicans.

Nearman also went on the attack against House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat from Portland who disclosed on Jan. 7 that State Police confirmed to her that it was Nearman depicted on video as the man opening a Capitol door. Protesters entered a vestibule on the northwest side of the Capitol, but State Police troopers confined them there and eventually ejected them. Police repelled a second attempt to breach the west entrance later in the day.

Nearman questioned the timing of the disclosure, which occurred one day after the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob intent on disrupting the congressional certification of the electoral votes confirming Democrat Joe Biden's victory over President Donald Trump. Five people died, among them a U.S. Capitol Police officer.

The video of Nearman's action has gone viral, triggering an outpouring of criticism of Nearman.

"I hope for due process, and not the mob justice to which Speaker Kotek is subjecting me," he said in the statement.

Facing actions

Nearman is under criminal investigation by Oregon State Police, who have arrested five people in connection with the disruption. The breach did not stop lawmakers from completing their work in the one-day session.

Any criminal charges would likely be decided by the Marion County district attorney. Potential charges could include "official misconduct," which covers a variety of offenses.

Kotek did take three actions on Monday against Nearman, who was seated for his fourth term along with the 59 other representatives. Nearman acquiesced in one of them.

She stripped him of his two committee assignments, depriving him of any ability to influence legislation beyond voting on bills in the full House. She fined him $2,000 for the cost of damage to the door. She also joined other members to file a complaint against Nearman with the Legislative Equity Office, which could trigger an investigation by the House Committee on Conduct, which has an equal number of members from both parties.

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Nearman read a statement Monday in which he agreed to surrender his electronic access card to the Capitol, not admit non-authorized people into the Capitol, and give 24-hour notice before he enters the Capitol.

The Oregon Constitution does provide that the House and Senate can expel members based on "disorderly conduct," which is broader than criminal conduct. Expulsion requires a two-thirds vote, but only in the chamber where the offending member sits.

Although it appears unlikely in this case, conviction on a felony charge would automatically remove a legislator, even if the legislator appeals the conviction, under a 1994 change to the Oregon Constitution.

Nearman, a 56-year-old software engineer, was initially elected in 2014. He unseated in the primary a Republican who had appeared with other Republicans in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples. A federal judge overturned Oregon's ban in 2014, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court did so in an Ohio case.

Nearman's District 23 takes in largely rural areas in four Mid-Willamette Valley counties. The city of Independence is in District 20.

"For the last few days, I and my family have been subjected to criticism, attacks at my home and threats via email, social media and phone," he said in his statement. "Many of these messages have been hate-filled and profanity laced."

Nearman sought in his statement to make Kotek the issue — he compared his treatment with an unnamed staffer who he alleged unlawfully took part in Portland protests — and posed a series of challenges to the news media about the video.

False statement

But he also accused Kotek of distributing the video, a statement that is false.

During a Jan. 7 news briefing, which she and Senate President Peter Courtney called to discuss health protocols for the 2021 session that started on Monday, Kotek never showed any video footage to reporters. She said only that State Police had confirmed Nearman's identity.

Her spokesman said Tuesday night that she does not possess a copy. The spokesman declined further comment beyond what Kotek said Monday.

Nearman's action was caught on cameras that routinely monitor the Capitol entrances, which are posted with notices of video surveillance.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby released a statement Sunday that acknowledged the seriousness of what Nearman did, after the video footage went viral. It reads in part:

"The melee with police which follows is difficult to watch without a profound sense of gratitude to the troopers who were able to prevent further violence that could have recklessly put more people in harm's way. The impacts to the Capitol community are an elevated risk for violence within the building, which is significant.

"The investigation into this incident by law enforcement is underway and must be allowed to be completed. If the investigation finds that actions taken were criminal, legislators are not above the law and will be held responsible."

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