The terminated Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) Inspector General (IG) has ' filed a $3 million federal lawsuit, alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for raising ethical concerns about his boss.
Oregon prison officials created the IG position in 1990 to oversee internal investigations of misconduct and criminal wrongdoing by ODOC employees, contractors, volunteers, venders, and prisoners. The IG is also responsible for supervising disciplinary hearings officers, ODOC's Security Threat Group Management Unit, and the department's Special Needs Population prisoners. The IG also answers — routinely denies — disciplinary administrative review requests, tracks inmate litigation, and investigates Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) complaints. The IG answers only to the ODOC Director, but has authority to report concerns about the Director to the Governor and Attorney General.
"Inspector General is a very challenging job but a very important one for the health of the Department of Corrections," observed John Foote, a former ODOC IG and Director and the current District Attorney of Clackamas County.
Leonard Williamson was hired as ODOC's IG in 2011, at an annual salary of $136,000. He previously worked as a Tillamook County deputy district attorney and as a supervising attorney in the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ).
ODOC's Human Resources (HR) Department started investigating Williamson in June, 2015, according to ODOC spokeswoman Liz Craig. That investigation was a personnel matter, focusing on Williamsons' "general leadership and management style," said Craig. The investigation questioned Williamson's resolution of two incidents.
Williamson feared that the purpose of the investigation was to undermine his credibility. He also believed the investigator had a conflict of interest.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Williamson hired an attorney. He made a public records request for emails of ODOC Director Colette Peters, which he believed to contain potentially exculpatory statements.
While the HR investigation was still pending, Williamson learned in August, 2015, that Peters — a former ODOC IG, herself — planned to fire him. He then filed a September 3, 2015 tort claim notice, expressing his intent to bring a $3 million lawsuit against Peters, "10 Doe" Defendants, and the State of Oregon, for "injuring his professional reputation from April 15, 2015 to the present." The significance of that date is not clear.
The tort claim notice accuses Peters of nepotism, alleging that she intentionally created job vacancies "to appoint her personal friends, even if not the most qualified." Williamson claimed that Peters hired three friends for ODOC director and assistant director positions, and intended to do the same with his position.
Williamson's attorney also filed a "complaint" with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, accusing Peters of terminating "numerous" ODOC employees and replacing them with "close personal acquaintances, without regard to department hiring procedures."
The one-paragraph Ethics Commission letter was insufficient to trigger an investigation, however, because it did not include enough information to invoke the Commission's jurisdiction, according Executive Director Ron Bersin.
When Williamson's tort claim notice was released to the media, Peters issued a public statement declining to directly comment on Williamson's allegations.
"Leonard Williamson has submitted a tort claim notice to the Department of Administrative Services, alleging I have harmed his professional reputation," Peters said in the statement. "While I cannot comment on specific details at this time (due to pending litigation), I will fully cooperate in the legal process as it takes its course."
She was more interested in commenting on the Ethics Complaint. "I have not, at any time, terminated or caused a person to be terminated within the Department of Corrections for the purpose of hiring a personal acquaintance," Peters declared. "I affirm my hiring decisions have been in compliance with law and policy."
Presumably, the IG would have investigated any illegal hiring practices by the Director. Yet, a public records request revealed that Williamson did not produce a single report questioning Peters' hiring practices in the preceding 18 months.
The HR investigation concluded on October 19, 2015, finding no wrongdoing by Williamson. Nevertheless, later that day Peters informed Williamson of her intent to remove him.
In an October 19, 2015 letter, Peters offered Williamson a special three-month assignment if he withdrew his tort claim notice. He would also be required to resign by January 22, 2016 and not seek further ODOC employment. She also promised a neutral employment reference and an unspecified severance package.
Peters scheduled an October 23, 2015 meeting for Williamson to inform her of his answer. "If you do not attend this meeting or notify me by 2 p.m., on Oct 23, which option is being selected, I will issue a removal letter," warned Peters. Williamson did not attend the meeting, according to Craig, and Peters terminated him effective October 23, 2015.
"The decision Colette made was based on performance issues," Craig, said. "The decision was based on the totality of information available. The human resources investigation recently completed factored in, but was not the only factor."
Coincidentally, after the HR investigation ended, HR Director Christine Popoff was reassigned as Superintendent of the Oregon State Correctional Institution, effective November 30, 2015.
Seven months after his termination, Williamson made good on his threat to sue, filing a $3 million federal lawsuit against Peters and the ODOC, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for raising ethical concerns. Williamson alleges first amendment and due process violations, whistleblowing retaliation, and wrongful discharge.
The drama follows closely on the heels of the $450,000 settlement of another high-profile 2014 retaliation lawsuit against Peters. In that case Peters terminated Oregon Corrections Enterprises director Rob Killgore against the advice of DOJ lawyers, who feared that his termination would appear retaliatory. Like Williamson, Killgore claimed he was targeted as a whistleblower when he exposed questionable ODOC spending and hiring practices.
Craig declined to comment on the specifics of Williamson's lawsuit, but claimed that Peters' personnel decisions were lawful and the ODOC intends to "fully cooperate in the legal process as it takes its course."
"I have never heard of this before in my entire career," said Foote. We will report on any significant developments in the litigation.
Sources: The Oregonianl/OregonLive, The Statesman Journal
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