A hard-fought Republican primary for the Oregon House seat in Keizer and Newberg just got hotter, with charges flying over a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a company of one of the candidates.
Two female employees sued KT Contracting Inc. on Feb. 26 in federal court, alleging sexual harassment and discrimination by a manager stretching more than three years. The women are seeking $2.5 million in damages and back wages.
Two weeks later, company President Kim Thatcher filed to run in the House District 25 GOP primary against incumbent Rep. Vic Backlund, R-Keizer.
“My opponent is touting her business acumen,” Backlund said, so he thought voters should know about the sexual-harassment suit and other suits filed against Thatcher’s company. Backlund’s campaign printed mailers highlighting the lawsuit, but before they were distributed, Thatcher’s campaign learned about the wording in the mailers.
Her attorney sent a letter to Backlund on Tuesday threatening a lawsuit if his campaign literature named her as a party in the suit. The suit is against KT Contracting and its former manager, not Thatcher. However, she runs the company, and her family owns it.
Backlund said he squelched the mailer, fearing a lawsuit.
“I think the proposed mailer did not make it clear enough that the business was being sued,” Backlund said.
Thatcher called it a “frivolous lawsuit” and said she responded promptly to the sexual-harassment claims by two employees.
KT Contracting provides traffic services at construction sites, such as flaggers and road dividers.
The two women who filed suit were flaggers for another company, K-M Services, which Thatcher purchased in 2003. The women accused the former K-M owner, who stayed on as manager after the purchase, of a string of harassment activities dating to August 2000.
They accused him of numerous incidents of unwanted touching and fondling, demands that they socialize with him in exchange for more work assignments, and requests to meet him at bars and restaurants to pick up their paychecks.
Their lawsuit alleges that the objectionable behavior continued for several months after Thatcher bought the company in January 2003.
Thatcher said she inherited the issue when she bought the company and took action after she was alerted to the problem in late August 2003.
She ordered all employees to participate in sexual-harassment training, which included legal documents, a video and other materials, Thatcher said.
The manager who was the target of the two women’s complaints resigned in September, she said.
Backlund distributed a copy of the lawsuit to reporters.
“You’ll notice that a good number of (the alleged incidents) occurred after she purchased the company,” he said.
Backlund angered many conservatives by voting last year for the $1.2 billion tax package that was overturned by voters when they defeated Measure 30 in February.
Thatcher picked up valuable support from Citizens for a Sound Economy, the group that led the fight against Measure 30, and conservative political consultant Larry George, among others. Her backers have sent out a string of negative mailers about Backlund, citing his votes for tax and fee increases, among other charges.
Backlund appears personally stung by the charges.
“Kim has done nothing in her political action committee that would be objectionable,” Backlund said. “It’s the groups representing her that are doing these misrepresentations, these distortions and these hit pieces.”
Thatcher said Backlund hasn’t been able to demonstrate any inaccuracies in the mailings. However, she acknowledged that the strong tone of the mailers was out of her control because it’s being framed by her supporters.
“It’s off-putting, and I wouldn’t have done that,” she said.
Steve Law can be reached at (503) 399-6615.