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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Outgoing Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton is denying new allegations of abusive behavior from his top managers. Weekly threats to fire people, commands that changed day to day, and bizarre references to physically harming his political enemies.

Those are some of the observations of departing Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton’s performance by his top managers, based on public records released Tuesday under Oregon Public Records Law.

The documents, notes from an investigation into Staton launched by county Chair Deborah Kafoury, depict how he has operated for years behind closed doors. Independent statements provided by some of Staton’s closest aides described a pattern of erratic behavior that paralyzed the operation of his 800-person office, making it difficult to get things done. They portrayed Staton as paranoid, untruthful and disconnected, providing insight into months of turmoil that preceded his May announcement that he’d retire effective Tuesday, Aug. 16.

Questions about how to remove the elected sheriff fueled a charter review commission’s decision to let voters decide in November whether to make the position appointed by the county board.

Asked about the documents Tuesday, Staton denied some of the claims while dismissing others. He said his top managers were in “collusion” to remove him after he questioned their performance.

“I was nothing more than an obstacle,” he said, adding that a more complete investigation would have vindicated him. Staton has blamed Kafoury for the pressure on him to step down.

Kafoury ordered the Staton investigation in response to complaints about him.

Asked to comment on the released documents, Kafoury defended the Sheriff’s Office managers as “outstanding public servants,” saying it saddened her to learn of their working conditions.

“I’m horrified that any person in a position of power, be it a manager or particularly an elected official, would act in such a way,” she said.

Three top managers and four officials in the deputy sheriff’s union were interviewed before the investigation was suspended due to Staton’s retirement announcement. Had the probe continued, allegations of untruthfulness could have been used to strip Staton of his law enforcement certification.

Linda Yankee aftermath

The documents shed light on why the county quickly reached a settlement worth approximately $300,000 with Chief Deputy Linda Yankee after she filed a lawsuit threat in January. According to the interview notes, Staton’s top managers confirmed Yankee’s claims that Staton had subjected her to an abusive and hostile work environment while making derisive and misogynist comments.

Chief Deputy Tim Moore told county investigators that after Yankee’s claim was filed, Staton asked him about her claims in a way that provided his side of the story, causing Moore to warn the sheriff that efforts to affect his testimony, or “tampering,” would eventually come out in the event of a lawsuit.

Moore said Staton’s response fell into a familiar pattern of denial and blame, after Moore reminded Staton that he’d tried to discourage the sheriff from making inappropriate comments about other county officials such as Kafoury’s chief of staff, Nancy Bennett.

“Well, I was on heavy pain meds when that occurred,” Moore said Staton responded. “When I wasn’t on pain meds, I was in a lot of pain ... You know what, you people down that (expletive) hall know how to push my buttons and made me use that language about Nancy.”

Similarly, Jennifer Ott, Staton’s human relations director, told county investigators that Staton’s reaction to the Yankee claims — which Ott characterized as true — changed rapidly, from asking if he’d said those things, to denial, then explaining things in ways that were at odds with what actually had happened. “His sense of reality ... was detached,” she said, according to the investigative documents.

Memory, veracity challenged

A recurring theme of the investigative interviews was Staton saying things that were not true, or different than what he’d said previously. Staton had had medical problems that may have contributed to the problem, according to the documents.

He told managers that after the Yankee complaint, county attorneys interviewed his wife for more than four hours, and later that changed to 45 minutes, according to the records. One manager questioned whether Staton’s wife was interviewed at all.

In command meetings, Staton either wouldn’t give direction, or would give contradictory instructions in the same discussion, according to the notes. When managers tried to clarify things, he frequently would reverse course or deny having given a command that he’d previously issued.

The “same decision would warrant praise one day, dressing down the next,” Moore told investigators, according to the notes, adding that Staton exhibited an “I hate you-I love you” pattern, including with union leaders.

Ott said of Staton that she “didn’t know if it was medical or not, but feels he has a very unreliable memory,” according to the documents. She was “feeling disloyal sharing this, but they wouldn’t know what to do with it when he would make representations they couldn’t rely on.”

“This is hard to say but he does lie,” she added, according to the notes. “There are so many examples; it happens a lot.”

She said an example of Staton’s disconnect was when he asked one day how things had gotten so bad so quickly. But “Staton told command staff they couldn’t meet or talk to one another (and) threatened to fire (them) if they defied him,” she said, according to the notes.

Because regular command staff meetings with Staton were unproductive, command staff worked out a system of illicit communication to try and manage the department, keeping a lookout for him while they tried to have operational discussions, she said, according to the records.

Threats common

Moore told investigators he’d been directly threatened with firing about a dozen times, and command staff were threatened with firing about 100 times.

Ott, the human relations director, said Staton issued threats to fire people on a “weekly” basis “for the last six years,” according to the records.

She said it “feels like he feeds on the reaction, watching people squirm.”

Often those threats were in the form of retaliation, according to Moore.

Moore said Staton wanted to go through Yankee’s record to find reasons to fire her. He also talked about firing a deputy who was active in the corrections deputies’ union, only to have Moore protest that such activity was protected by law and any firing would later be reversed by an arbitrator.

Moore said Staton’s response was that “by then it will be two years later, they’ll be homeless on the street with their kids. They’ll know who the boss is.”

Staton also threatened his command staff with lawsuits and firing if they were disloyal, according to his managers.

Sometimes the threats went beyond firing and suits, and Staton would talk about physically harming people in graphic language, aides said.

Staton denied ever threatening anyone with physical harm, though he did say he tried to hold managers accountable. He defended his record as sheriff, listing off several achievements such as taking over the Troutdale police force.

Kafoury said the county is moving on, as former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese took over as sheriff on Wednesday.

“It’s a really a sad affair that I’m hoping has now come to an end,” she said.

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