Brown's office says terminations hinged on leadership style

SALEM — Two top officials at the Oregon Employment Department faced employee complaints last year that they engaged in favoritism and illegally transferred money to another state agency.

However, an investigation by a contractor for the Oregon Department of Justice had cleared Employment Department Director Lisa Nisenfeld and deputy director Salvador Llerenas of any significant wrongdoing a month before Gov. Kate Brown fired Nisenfeld in early January. Llerenas was also fired, after Kay Erickson, a budget manager from the Department of Administrative Services, took over as interim director of the Employment Department. The Department of Administrative Services released a redacted copy of the investigator’s report this week.

The investigator concluded the unnamed employees who complained of wrongdoing had little knowledge of some of the issues they raised, in particular an effort to better align workforce training initiatives on which funds were allegedly misspent, and “not one of the examples of unethical practices (e.g., improper contracting practices, hiring of friends) was proven,” according to the report.

The findings were still troubling to the governor, and a letter released by Brown’s office on Wednesday revealed that the administration removed Nisenfeld from the director’s job due to dissatisfaction with her communication and leadership style.

“Although it is not necessary to identify any specific grounds, Governor Brown made the decision to remove you based on your leadership and management style, including consideration of your communication style with agency employees, including how you share and disseminate information within the agency, and what is in the best interests of the Employment Department going forward,” Brown’s chief of staff Kristen Leonard wrote in the letter.

The Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau could not reach Nisenfeld or Llerenas for comment on Wednesday.

Nisenfeld, who was appointed director in September 2013, took on the job of overhauling a dysfunctional agency that had lost the trust of budget writers in the Legislature and Department of Administrative Services and wasted money on problematic software projects, according to the Department of Justice contractor’s findings and media reports over the years. Llerenas was hired a few months before Nisenfeld.

“Llerenas and Nisenfeld took on a very difficult situation at (Oregon Employment Department), working to restore credibility to an agency which had lost the trust of significant state partners,” according to the contractor, who added that some employees did view Nisenfeld as a “change agent.”

In spring 2015, an individual who requested whistle blower status made “several complaints about the leadership of the Oregon Employment Department”, according to the report. The Oregon Department of Justice hired the firm Workplace Solutions Northwest to conduct an investigation, and some of the findings in the report were reflected in Leonard’s letter to Nisenfeld.

For example, lawyer Jill Goldsmith of Workplace Solutions Northwest wrote that Nisenfeld “can be quite direct and confrontational” and “outside of her executive team, which knows her well and generally has a good relationship with her, Nisenfeld can be perceived as intimidating.”

Some employees reported that Nisenfeld used expletives such as “damn” and spoke negatively of middle managers during a leadership training.

Goldsmith found that Nisenfeld, who previously worked for much smaller organizations, did not seem to realize the impact of her blunt comments on agency employees who did not regularly interact with her and might have felt intimidated. However, the investigator found that employees did not face retribution for disagreeing with Nisenfeld.

Goldsmith found that Nisenfeld and Llerenas’ communication problems fueled speculation and mistrust among other employees.

Llerenas’ 2014 romantic relationship with a high-level employee involved in workforce reforms, Kim Parker, also contributed to employees’ suspicions about Llerenas and Nisenfeld’s actions, according to the report.

Goldsmith did find that the deputy director, Llerenas, in some cases did not follow state protocols on hiring and setting salaries “because he believes the state classification system is broken,” according to the report.

One or more employees at the Employment Department had complained that a new unit, which Nisenfeld formed to integrate workforce and training initiative at multiple agencies, was “illegally created,” according to the report. In fact, Goldsmith found Nisenfeld had taken the necessary steps — including an interagency agreement — to create the unit.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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