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Fired Oregon Corrections Inspector General Threatens $3 Million Lawsuit

One month after filing a notice of intent to bring a $3 million lawsuit against his employer, Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) Inspector General (IO) Leonard Williamson, was terminated.

"I have never heard of this before in my entire career," said Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote who has previously served as the ODOC IO and Director. "Inspector general is a very challenging job but a very important one for the health of the Department of Corrections."

The position was created in 1990 and is responsible for internal investigations of misconduct and criminal wrongdoing of ODOC employees, contractors, volunteers, vendors and prisoners. The IO is also responsible for the supervision of disciplinary hearings officers, responding to disciplinary administrative review requests, inmate litigation tracking, Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) investigations, supervision of the Security Threat Group Management Unit, and Special Needs Population prisoners. The IO answers only to the Director but also has authority to report concerns about the Director to the Governor and the Attorney General.

Williamson, 51, served as a Tillamook County deputy district attorney and a manager in the Oregon Department of Justice before being hired as ODOC IO in 2011, with an annual salary of $136,000.

The ODOC Human Resources (HR) Department began investigating Williamson during the summer of 2015, according to ODOC spokeswoman Liz Craig. The investigation was a personnel matter that focused on Williamson's "general leadership and management style," said Craig.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Williamson filed a September 3, 2015 notice of intent to bring $3 million lawsuit against ODOC Director Colette Peters, the state, and "10 Does" for "injuring his professional reputation" starting on April 15, 2015. The significance of that date is not clear.

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."

Oregon Ethics Commission Executive Director Ron Bersin said Williamson's one­paragraph letter did not include enough detail to be considered a complaint that would fall within the commission's jurisdiction. As such, no investigation would be conducted, Bersin said.

Peters, who has also served as ODOC's IO, issued a public statement declining to publicly 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 appeared to be more willing to speak about the subject of 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."

A public records request revealed that Williamson had not produced any reports raising concerns about Peters' hiring practices at any time in the preceding 18 months. ODOC claimed that an unidentified separate internal auditing office also has not raised  any  concerns.

Soon after the HR investigation was completed, but not yet released, Peters fired Williamson. During the week of October 19, 2015, Peters sent Williamson a letter informing him that he would be terminated. She offered him a special three-month assignment if he withdrew his tort claim notice. Williamson would also be required to resign by January 22, 2016 and not seek further ODOC employment. Peters also promised a neutral employment reference and an unspecified settlement agreement.

Peters gave Williamson until the end of week to accept her offer. "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. Peters terminated him effective October 23, 2015.

Coincidentally, in what looks like a related move and demotion, Peters also moved Assistant Director Christine Popoff from the head of the Human Resources department to the position of Superintendent of the Oregon State Correctional Institution, effective November 30, 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."

The drama follows closely on the heels of another high-profile lawsuit and $450,000 settlement in 2014 over Peters' termination of Oregon Corrections Enterprises director Rob Killgore against the advice of DOJ lawyers, who feared the termination would appear retaliatory. Killgore claimed that he was targeted as a whistleblower for spotlighting questionable ODOC spending and hiring practices.

Williamson, who declined to comment, is certain to make good on his threat to sue Peters. We will report on any significant developments in the litigation.

Source: The Oregonian/OregonLive 

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