YIR: Tyler Miller files federal civil rights, defamation suit
YEAR IN REVIEW — In April, attorneys for Tyler Miller, a former volunteer with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office who also worked on a communications project for Columbia 911 Communications District, filed a civil rights defamation lawsuit in federal court. The suit alleges Miller was the target of a smear campaign for his role as a sexual harassment whistleblower.
Miller learned of sexually harassing behavior by Steve Watson, Columbia 911's executive director, in late 2016 and into early 2017, according to the lawsuit. Watson ultimately admitted to the activity and resigned from the communication's district in April 2017.
As a result of Miller's whistleblowing, Watson and members of Columbia 911's board of directors, including the board's personnel committee made up of Henry Heimuller and Rob Anderson, as well as former Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson and others, "conspired to defame and drive Miller out of the community through a campaign of half-truths, misleading statements, and outright lies," according to the lawsuit.
In response to Miller's sexual harassment reporting, the Columbia 911's board commissioned Bullard Law to investigate Miller's allegations. Bullard Law attorney Liani Reeves returned an investigative document in March 2017 confirming Miller's claims against Watson.
Columbia 911's board commissioned a second Bullard Law report in April 2017, however, intended to investigate Miller's motivation for reporting Watson's sexual harassment activity. The second report, compiled by Bullard Law attorney Akin Blitz, indicated Miller came forward only after Watson moved to terminate Miller's involvement on a radio project. The second report, called the "Blitz Report," was released to the media in the lead up to the 2017 primary election, in which Miller was running against Columbia 911 board member Anderson as a candidate for a seat on the district's board. Miller lost that bid.
Miller's attorneys, who named Blitz as a defendant in their federal lawsuit, say release of the Blitz Report was strategically timed to damage Miller's reputation and thwart his election to the Columbia 911 board. Additionally, Miller became the subject of an Oregon State Police coercion investigation following release of the Blitz Report, news of which surfaced in the media just prior to the May 2017 election. During this time, Dickerson had also placed Miller on inactive status in his role as a Sheriff's Office reserve deputy, a volunteer position Miller had held since 2011.
A Clackamas County deputy district attorney who reviewed the OSP case did not file criminal charges against Miller.
In October, a 90-page investigative document commissioned by Miller's attorney, John D. Ostrander of the firm Elliott, Ostrander & Preston, P.C., was released to the Spotlight that categorically reviewed and rejected claims made against Miller in the Blitz Report. The new report, titled "Tyler Miller and the 911 Communications District" and drafted by Portland attorney Elliott Thompson, concluded the coercion claims against Miller were unfounded and that Miller became a target of the Columbia 911 board members, who then commissioned the $40,000 Blitz Report, due to his criticism of their management.
"In the end, the Board's dedication to a dysfunctional and dangerous status quo seems to have led the Board to focus its resources on attacking and attempting to discredit the messenger, rather than on improving its provision of vital emergency services to the Columbia County community — which based on my review of the available evidence is all Tyler Miller has ever worked for," concludes Thompson's report.
The federal lawsuit is ongoing.
Spotlight reporting about the Clackamas County deputy district attorney's review of the OSP investigation into Miller came under scrutiny in October when a specific error in an August 2017 story was brought to our attention. The Spotlight had erroneously reported that Clackamas County Deputy DA Bryan Censoni had found that while Miller did not commit a provable crime, his actions were motivated by vindictiveness.
Censoni never made such a finding, though the error was repeated in follow-up Spotlight stories.
The Spotlight's error was the result of a misreading of Censoni's letter, in which he relates a conversation between Miller and Watson's then-wife. Watson's wife said Miller told her he was acting vindictively when he informed her of her husband's sexual harassment, Censoni notes in the letter, adding that even if that were the case, it would not constitute a crime.
Miller has also since stated that Watson's wife misunderstood the conversation, and that he was telling her that Watson was acting vindictively.
The Spotlight has since retracted the incorrect August 2017 article and has corrected other references to the error.