The Crook County Fire and Rescue District is challenging a recent ruling by the Oregon Employment Relations Board following disclosure by an adjudicator that she was discussing employment with the union's law firm prior to the conclusion of the matter.
In a Recommended Rulings, Finding of Facts, Conclusions of Law and Proposed Order document dated March 15, Julie Reading, the Employment Relations Board's Administrative Law Judge, sided with the Crook County Firefighters Association regarding multiple complaints of anti-union behavior by the fire district.
The parties had until April 19 to object to any of the findings, and during that time period, the district learned through a disclosure submitted by Reading that she had been talking to the union's attorney, Jason Weyand, about an opening in his Tedesco Law Group law firm.
According to the disclosure letter, which was emailed to the district's attorney Steven Schuback on March 23, Weyand had initially worked for the Employment Relations Board with Reading.
"After Mr. Weyand's departure from ERB, we stayed in contact through the Rules Advisory Committee, which he took an active role in and I chaired," she wrote. "Occasionally, we would informally discuss mutual interest in working together again someday."
The letter goes on to say that in early March, Weyand contacted Reading to see if she would be interested in applying for an opening at his law firm "after the Crook County case was concluded."
"I stated that I would, but obviously no discussions could occur until after the reco (recommended ruling) was issued," Reading wrote.
She went on to recount that on the morning of March 15, after the ruling was issued, she met informally with Tedesco Law Group partners. She claims that she did not expect to receive an offer, nor know if she would accept one if it was made. However, she did receive an offer the following day, and after taking one more day to consider it, she accepted the job offer on March 17.
In response to the disclosure, the district filed an objection to Reading's recommended rulings in their entirety and is seeking to have them set aside and also objected to 15 individual findings of fact and conclusions of law.
In addition, the district has filed a complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission against Reading and an Oregon State Bar complaint against Weyand.
CCFR Board Chair Jim Dean addressed the decisions at a Thursday CCFR Board meeting, reading from a prepared statement.
"The fire board is deeply troubled by this information and is greatly concerned about the ethical and professional conduct of the ALJ and association attorney," he read.
Dean went on to stress that the board has no reason to believe the union was involved in any of the newly disclosed information and does not want to prolong the conflict with the union.
"… however, in light of the current circumstances, the fire board is compelled to use the legal process to have the recommended ruling and the conduct of the ALJ scrutinized," he said.
In letters signed by Dean and submitted to the Ethics Commission and State Bar, the district stresses that neither Reading nor Weyand disclosed any of their conversations prior to the March 15 ruling and went on to note that Reading only disclosed the information after being directed to by the ERB chair. The letters go on to point out that the communications between Reading and Weyand while the CCFR case was pending and the timing of her ruling and acceptance of new employment are "highly suspect."
Now that the objections have been filed, the Employment Relations Board will schedule oral argument in the near future.
"When they schedule oral argument, both sides have 20 minutes to state their case in front of the ERB, or you field questions," Schuback explained. "Then the ERB takes the case, and they can take as long as they want to decide the matter."
The ethics complaint will be handled by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, provided the complaint is within its jurisdiction. The commission will open a case and initiate a preliminary review, which must be completed within 30 days of when the complaint was filed.
The objective of the preliminary review is to determine if sufficient cause exists to conduct an investigation. If cause is found, the commission conducts an investigation, and during that process, which is limited to 180 days, subpoenas for documents and oral testimony may be issued.
Once the investigation concludes, the commission can either choose to dismiss the case, continue the investigation for another 30 days, find that Oregon Government Ethics law was violated, or seek a negotiated settlement.
If the commission finds a violation, the case is moved to a contested case stage. The person may choose to settle the case by signing a stipulated final order and complying with its terms or proceed with a hearing.
The State Bar complaint process includes some similarities. The complaint goes through an initial screening investigation with the Client Assistance Office to determine if there is enough evidence of ethical misconduct to warrant a more formal investigation by Disciplinary Counsel's Office (DCO).
The DCO either dismisses the complaint or if the office determines there is sufficient evidence for a prosecution, they take it to the State Professional Responsibility Board (SPRB), which functions like a grand jury for the State Bar. The SPRB then decides whether or not there is sufficient evidence to prosecute.
If a prosecution is authorized by the SPRB, it moves into a trial phase, where a hearing takes place before a three-person panel. The trail panel then comes back with a written opinion and a recommended sanction. Sanctions can range from a public reprimand or law license suspension to permanent disbarment.
After the district filed its objections and the ethics and bar complaints, the union issued a statement saying it "strongly disagrees that the initial ruling from the Employment Relations Board was in any way biased against the district."
"To the contrary, the union believes that the order was in fact overly generous to the district and it should have found additional violations and ordered a more meaningful remedy," the statement reads. "The union will be filing objections of its own to the recommended order, and we are confident that the full board will independently review the evidence and come to the inescapable conclusion that Chief Smith retaliated against firefighters because they engaged in union activities."