Brandenburg wrestles with seven-year-old complaint about leadership
Incoming Clackamas County Sheriff Angela Brandenburg said her leadership style is nothing like it is portrayed in a 2013 complaint, obtained by Pamplin Media Group, in which a co-worker accused her of bullying and contributing to an unprofessional work environment.
Records disclosed May 26 under Oregon Public Records law show that seven years ago former Clackamas County Sheriff's Deputy Patrick Finn accused Brandenburg and other members of the agency's leadership team of bullying him and retaliating after he raised concerns on behalf of union deputies and office staff.
At the time of the complaint Finn was civil division deputy and a Clackamas County Peace Officers Association official. Brandenburg was the lieutenant in charge of the civil division, the department responsible for processing courthouse documents such as small claims, subpoenas, evictions and search warrants. When the behavior allegedly began, she was a sergeant and member of the division's leadership team.
Finn's complaint alleges that Brandenburg contributed to a work environment where sexual and unprofessional jokes were commonplace. It also accuses Brandenburg and other courthouse supervisors of favoritism when enforcing workplace behavior policies and practicing a double standard in determining what was acceptable behavior by deputies and managers.
Records were disclosed as Brandenburg, 50, is poised to take over as the top law enforcement officer of Oregon's third most populous county. The 29-year veteran of the sheriff's office earned 51% of the vote last month and will appear as the only name in the race on the November ballot. January, overseeing more than 500 deputies and a budget of $98 million.
In her new position, Brandenburg will set the tone for how sheriff's employees conduct themselves in an agency that has faced repeated scandal and criticism over decades, struggling at times with accountability and transparency. In her campaign, Brandenburg stressed that she intends to address the agency's past internal problems by initiating a "hard reset" on the entire office. And in an interview with Pamplin Media last week, she insisted the information in the public records didn't accurately reflect her ability to lead and manage people.
"You can't change the culture without leadership that's willing to set the example for other people to follow," she said. "I've been open. I've been honest. I've been transparent my entire career. I expect the same from the people who work for me."
Yet complaints in the newly released records echo some of the criticisms leveled against Brandenburg's campaign by opponents, and may explain why the deputies' union chose to endorse someone else.
Asked about the complaint, Stephen Steinberg, union president, said it was not the only one. "I can confirm that during Undersheriff Brandenburg's tenure in the civil division, (union) members did complain about Brandenburg's inappropriate conduct," he said.
Ahead of the election Brandenburg released her sheriff's office personnel file, which dates to 1991. It contains a history of glowing performance evaluations and steady advancement through the office's ranks. It did not include any materials pertaining to Finn's 2013 complaint.
When asked before the election, Brandenburg denied having been the subject of a harassment investigation. In an interview with Pamplin Media Friday, May 29, Brandenburg said she had never seen the complaint nor was she aware of its existence until the records were released to Pamplin Media.
In response to public records requests filed by Pamplin Media on May 11, the county on May 14 disclosed records pertaining to a 2013 investigation conducted by USO Consulting, an outside investigator on contract with the sheriff's office. That report prompted a second round of records requests on May 19, Election Day, which led the county a week later to disclose Finn's complaint and the response by the county human resources department.
County declined to investigate
Records show Finn's complaint was filed with then-Undersheriff David Kirby and the county's human resources department on July 18, 2013. Six days later, county officials responded to Finn saying they were declining to investigate because the complaint lacked any allegation he was discriminated against under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Pamplin Media was unable to contact Finn, who left the sheriff's office in 2014 and retired from law enforcement in 2017 after serving three years as a school resource officer in Wilsonville.
According to the complaint, Finn met with supervisors shortly after becoming a union representative in January 2012 to air concerns he and other union deputies had with the way the department was being run. After that meeting, the complaint alleges, Finn was treated more harshly than other deputies who had closer relationships with managers, specifically Brandenburg. Among the allegations:
• Supervisors practiced a double standard when it came to policing inappropriate behavior within the office. While some employees would receive a verbal reprimand or counseling from a supervisor, Finn claimed similar behavior on his part prompted formal complaints and disciplinary action.
For example, Finn said in his complaint that upon receiving a reprimand for a dirty joke, he became the subject of an internal affairs complaint and was directed to take an internal county training seminar on workplace harassment. According to Finn, these types of jokes were everyday occurrences within the courthouse division, and that supervisors, such as Brandenburg herself, were among the worst offenders.
• Supervisors played favorites in assigning work and shifts to employees. Some deputies were so unhappy with the civil division that they commonly referred to it as a "den of snakes" and the "Lieutenants Kingdom."
'Void in leadership'
The report into Finn's complaint — generated by Greg Olson of USO Consulting — describes a 15-day investigation beginning Sept. 5, 2013. According to the report, Olson spoke with 22 then-current and former employees of Clackamas County Sheriff's Office's civil division.
The report, which does not single out Brandenburg, characterizes the unit as having a "void in leadership" due to supervisors being too friendly and familiar with subordinates. Olson described the civil division's workplace to Kirby in general terms and hypotheticals.
"Leaders do not have a clear delineation between them and the rank and file," the report said. "Leaders dismiss the behavior of the employee … as 'Joe being Joe.' It is a leadership failure to accept poor behavior that affects the workplace and not correcting it. This leads to the staff believing that there is favoritism towards this person by rewarding them."
Sheriff Craig Roberts, who has held his post since 2005, told Pamplin Media Wednesday, May 27, that he had a vague recollection of the events around the complaint and subsequent investigation. Roberts said when he was made aware of the records request Tuesday, May 26, he checked in with county human resources personnel who said the complaint was vetted and dismissed because it "did not have merit."
Roberts said that under county policy, Brandenburg was never notified because the allegations weren't substantiated.
But, he insisted, he took the complaint seriously. "Back then, did I know there were some issues going on (in the civil division)? Yes," Roberts said. "Our leadership team at the time would not ignore something, and if there was a problem we were going to look into it."
Roberts stands by his endorsement of Brandenburg to succeed him as Clackamas County sheriff. He describes her as someone he can bring into a situation when something needs fixed. "She's brought people together, she's set out plans and held people accountable," Roberts said.
In fact, he portrays the 2013 complaint against Brandenburg as retaliation for holding people accountable. In her campaign, Brandenburg acknowledged that lower-level employees in the agency lack confidence in management. In response, she promised better communication and greater accountability led by an executive team with the highest moral fiber.
Despite these promises, union membership voted to endorse retired Sgt. Lynn Schoenfeld over Brandenburg.
Steinberg, the union president, said in an email that he can't speak for the more than 500 members of his union as to why they supported Schoenfeld over Brandenburg or any other candidate, but he did say that one of the core values of their organization is holding themselves and others accountable at all times.
He said they "seek to have management hold their managers to the same standards we are held to. We encourage our members to admit fault and correct behavior when warranted, but unfortunately, we routinely question management's ability to police themselves."
Portland Tribune reporter Nick Budnick contributed to this report.
Author's note: This story has been edited to clarify that Brandenburg will not officially be elected sheriff until after the November election, in which she will be the only candidate on the ballot.
Brandenburg says managing personnel was a 'learning experience'
Angela Brandenburg says her time at the civil division of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office contributed to her growth and understanding of how to manage people.
She disputes claims that she contributed to an inappropriate workplace culture or practiced a double standard in dealing with subordinates. And she says the 2013 complaint that makes those assertions does not reflect how the entire unit felt about her leadership.
"It's a small contingent of people," she said of her detractors. "I've done nothing wrong, and I think that my evaluations speak to that."
While the majority of Brandenburg's 170-page personnel file is a sparkling reflection of a successful career, there are, however, a few portions that indicate she struggled in dealing with employee behavior and discipline while serving as a civil division manager.
In March 2014, eight months after a complaint was filed against Brandenburg, then-chief deputy Kevin Layng suggested in a performance review that she was having a tough time keeping the conduct of her unit in line.
"There were several challenging employee performance and discipline issues Lt. Brandenburg worked through while working in civil," Layng wrote. "Angie needed some guidance and assistance through these personnel problems that were disrupting the workplace."
Brandenburg said her supervisors at the time — including former CCSO Lt. Debbie Brent and then-Undersheriff David Kirby — played a large part in her growth as a manager through those difficult times.
"Kirby wanted to bring someone in from the outside (to investigate the workplace), and I respect that," Brandenburg said. "That was a learning lesson for me, and it was needed. It was like taking the air out of a balloon. It was a reset."
Brandenburg said that she has grown as a leader over the past several years and has come to understand that there are "clarifying lines" that have to be set in order to keep boundaries between manager and employee.
"I think relationships are primary," she said. "So it's really finding that balance of being connected and being professional."
— Sam Stites
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