Report: Retired CRFR division chief harassed, endangered staff
An internal investigation report into workplace complaints against Ron Youngberg, a division chief at Columbia River Fire and Rescue who retired nearly a month after the report's completion, upheld vast claims of misconduct against him, including allegations he purposefully intimidated and harassed staff, made racist and sexually explicit comments, jeopardized public safety, and committed numerous acts of dangerous unprofessionalism.
The 72-page report, drafted by David Hepp Consulting and Investigations in Hillsboro at the request of CRFR's legal counsel, Bullard Law, covers more than 25 years of Youngberg's behavior as a division chief — the second in command at the agency, answerable only to the fire chief — following a variety of complaints, including those from CRFR firefighters and paramedics, union officials and staff members from other response agencies, such as Scappoose Rural Fire District.
Throughout the leaked report, Youngberg predominately maintains he didn't recall specific incidents of misconduct, or denies the violations occurred as reported. In some instances he acknowledged the claims, often chalking them up to other circumstances.
Youngberg did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The report was never made public despite earlier requests for it by the Spotlight, including a petition to the Columbia County District Attorney's Office, which ultimately concluded the report was exempt from disclosure due to attorney-client privilege.
Youngberg remained on active service as the investigation played out, though he was removed from duty officer status Dec. 22, 2015. Nearly a week after the draft report was completed on Jan. 6, 2016, Jay Tappan, the fire chief at the time, placed Youngberg on paid administrative leave.
Tappan claimed the investigation was ongoing, however, and took no further action against Youngberg over the next few weeks, despite conclusions in the report that Youngberg had violated CRFR policy and the agency's mission statement with numerous terminable offenses.
Instead, Youngberg announced his resignation and retirement Jan. 25, effective Feb. 1, 2016. By being allowed to retire, CRFR administrators bypassed reporting misconduct alleged in the report to the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. Though DPSST has no moral fitness standards for fire certification, a DPSST investigation would likely have been triggered had Youngberg been fired for cause, according to Linsay Hale, a rules and compliance coordinator with DPSST.
It is unclear if any crimes occurred as documented in the report. Following a section regarding "Instigating Inappropriate Actions," however, the report states, "These incidents are clearly outside of allowable organizational expectations, and even criminal violations, but not prosecutable (beyond the statute of limitations)."
Youngberg's firefighter certifications have now all expired as of Dec. 31, according to DPPST records. A separation agreement between Youngberg and the fire district allowed him to retain health insurance coverage for one year and cash out accrued and unused sick time, vacation and holiday time.
As many as 27 people, a list including CRFR former and current management and staff, were interviewed during the investigation. While some of the alleged incidents occurred as many as 20 years ago, most took place over the last five years.
The investigation was prompted by a complaint letter filed by Katelyn Oldham, an attorney with the firm Tedesco Law Group representing the CRFR firefighters union. In it, Oldham wrote, "Division chief Youngberg has been with CRF&R for more than 25 years. During that time, there have been multiple complaints filed about his
inappropriate and haras-
sing conduct," the report shows.
Oldham's two-page complaint continues, "The nature of his conduct is severe enough to create a hostile work environment. A greater concern is his poor management of emergency scenes and the resultant safety risks to our members."
Perhaps paramount in the report are accounts of public and CRFR personnel safety jeopardized by Youngberg's actions as alleged in the report.
In some cases, the report outlines incidents where Youngberg delayed emergency response or treatment.
Some firefighters interviewed said Youngberg only responded to major trauma events of a gruesome nature, which he would photograph with his smart phone, while ignoring calls for emergency medical aid like cardiac arrests, even when he was the closest available person to respond.
A CRFR lieutenant reported Youngberg once halted the extraction of a crash injury victim to snap a picture.
"... Chief Youngberg stated, 'Hold on, hold on" (interrupting extrication) and reached in with his extended arm while holding his phone. While directing his phone within close range of the patients badly injured legs, I saw him put his finger to the screen of the phone as if he were taking a picture," the lieutenant states in the report. "This patient was severely injured and in significant distress requiring air transport to a level 1-trauma center."
Other CRFR personnel reported several similar incidents of mishandled emergencies, including directing firefighters to apply water to an electrical fire, swearing at firefighters, using unprofessional behavior on emergency scenes, and ordering firefighters to commit unsafe acts such as entering destabilized buildings and crossing downed powerlines, and more.
The investigation also noted instances of Youngberg exposing his genitals to other employees during safety training on two separate occasions roughly 20 years ago.
Youngberg told investigators that while he did not recall some of the actions alleged, he characterized one instance as a "stupid college stunt."
In 2014 the division chief also made a sexual joke about a female employee within earshot of other staff, which was reported to Human Resource Director Marit Nelson. No
disciplinary actions were taken.
Many other complaints were filed, from retaliation against CRFR staff for political activity and mismanagement of records, to misuse of personal protective equipment and unprofessional communication with Scappoose fire staff.
Tappan, who after 10 years of service at CRFR announced his retirement two weeks after Youngberg's resignation and left the agency in June 2016, indicated he thought complaints against Youngberg from the firefighters union were retaliatory following an earlier shift-trading investigation. The shift-trading probe is documented in the report with the conclusion Youngberg did not unfairly treat firefighters as a result of that investigation. Of all the claims in the report, Youngberg was absolved of three.
"There is a lot of animus toward Chief Youngberg, and apparently this is the way it came out," Tappan said.
When asked if he was discounting the report, Tappan said he was not. He added he was unaware of most of the incidents documented in the investigative report, and that for those of which he was aware, Youngberg received corrective action.
Tappan also expressed skepticism of some of the harassment claims.
"Harassment is an interesting word. Where does harassment start and harassment end when you have a paramilitary-type organization where some people have to give orders and some people have to take orders, and some people don't like to take the orders they're given?" he said. "Where is that line?"