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Former telecommunications manager claims harassment, now indicted on 14 counts in Columbia County Circuit Court

PMG FILE PHOTO - A worker at the Columbia 911 Communications headquarters in St. Helens. Columbia 911 has been the target of numerous harassment claims and lawsuits over the past few years.

A Clatskanie woman in January filed a federal harassment lawsuit against her former employer, Columbia 911 Communications District, alleging the district's new executive director, Mike Fletcher, retaliated against her for her involvement in a sexual harassment investigation into the district's former executive director, Steve Watson.

The woman, Diana Karthauser, alleges Fletcher is Watson's friend and that he fired her solely as an act of retaliation for her participation in the 2017 sexual harassment investigation that prompted Watson's resignation. She had worked at Columbia 911 since 2000 and held a manager's title when she was fired in July 2018.

But documents filed with the Bureau of Labor and Industries and correspondences between BOLI investigators and Columbia 911 attorneys point to other causes for her termination, including potential criminal activity.

"An employment investigation based on allegations of misconduct by coworkers was commenced on or about June 11, 2018," notes one correspondence from Columbia 911 attorney, C. Akin Blitz, to investigator Stacy McKerlie of BOLI's Civil Rights Division. "Ms. Karthauser was directed to paid administrative leave then. By July 11, 2018 reasonable suspicion or probable cause existed and supported that Ms. Karthauser may have committed certain crimes."

Exactly what crimes Karthauser may have committed, as alleged by Columbia 911, are not entirely clear. Notes from a September 2018 intake interview between Karthauser and McKerlie show that Fletcher found Karthauser had falsely reported hours for a training presentation while under Watson's supervision. McKerlie's notes state that the hours for a class Karthauser taught were 32 hours, yet she had marked the course value as 40.

Per the documents, Fletcher construed Karthauser as committing "fraud." Blitz, the attorney for Columbia 911, subsequently notified Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier and Oregon State Police of the district's suspicions.

A BOLI letter signed by Karthauser loosely references the complaints against her.

"The primary allegation concerns a class I presented to staff 6 months prior while under the supervision of a different director," she writes. "I had presented that class openly at a staff meeting with absolutely no intent to deceive or defraud anyone."

The Department of Public Safety Standards and Training's case file on Karthauser, which includes separate paperwork Fletcher filed with the agency in July 2018, identify three causes for Karthauser's termination, including personal characteristics and a leadership style incompatible with the district's values, numerous breaches of employee confidentiality, and "irregularities and deficiencies in training and DPSST reporting with significant practical, medical, civil liability, public health and safety implications."

Additionally, in an audio recording from the most recent Columbia 911 Advisory Committee meeting held Jan. 28, Fletcher can be heard informing committee members about the Karthauser case. In the recording, he rellates how in July 2018 he fired an operations/communications manager and details the internal probe, suspicion of criminal activity, and the follow-up criminal investigation after he had submitted information to the District Attorney's Office. He then states that, based on the criminal probe and findings, a grand jury returned 14 indictments, per the recording.

"The good news is, we were clearly justified in our actions in removing this person," he said. "What the DA's doing, that's his wheelhouse."

As of the Spotlight's press time Thursday, Feb. 13, no indictments against Karthauser had been filed for public review. Auxier did confirm Thursday morning, however, that Karthauser has been indicted on charges.

Bureaucratic entanglements

Exactly how the Karthauser case is playing out is exposing conflicts between BOLI, the U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission — BOLI's federal counterpart — and the state's criminal justice system. Per the BOLI process, employers accused of civil rights discrimination, such as in this case, are given 14 days to provide a written response to the allegations.

Upon receiving notice of the BOLI complaint and being prompted for an informative response, Columbia 911 requested an indefinite extension of the response deadline, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

"Sharing this information with BOLI would compromise the prosecution and would presumptively constitute obstruction of governmental administration, obstruction of judicial administration, official misconduct, and misuse of confidential information," Blitz wrote to McKerlie on Nov. 30, 2018. "Therefore, the District is unable to provide the requested 'complete written response to the allegations' and will be unable to do so until and unless Ms. Karthauser has been formally charged and the District Attorney authorizes the District to respond formally to the BOLI request after the State has provided criminal discovery to Ms. Karthauser."

McKerlie granted Columbia 911 a short extension, till Dec. 17, 2018, to provide its response, noting she had an interview the following day with Karthauser.

Again, Columbia 911 pushed back, citing the criminal probe and seeking to enlist the aid of Brad Avakian, the state's labor commissioner, and Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon's attorney general, per a Nov. 28, 2018, email from Blitz to McKerlie.

"I don't intend to be difficult, and offered to cooperate fully when I can," Blitz wrote. "That time may not arrive within your arbitrary deadline."

As a result of not submitting a complete written response to Karthauser's complaint, BOLI found substantial evidence that Fletcher and Columbia 911 unfairly discriminated against Karthauser, additionally stating that Columbia 911's statement was "incomplete in that it did not address many of Complainant's allegations," notes the Nov. 9, 2018 Notice of Substantial Evidence Determination sent to Columbia 911.

Discrimination claims

In the BOLI records and as outlined in her federal civil rights lawsuit filed Jan. 22, Karthauser claims Fletcher retaliated against her for answering investigator's questions during the 2017 sexual harassment probe into former executive director, Watson.

Karthauser alleges Fletcher, who worked as a consultant for the 911 district prior to being named Watson's successor, as reflected in past meeting minutes, was friends with Watson.

"Watson described Mr. Fletcher as a 'good friend', 'fishing buddy', and fellow 'robocop' (both did security together at the San Diego fair)," Karthauser states in documents filed with BOLI and in the lawsuit.

Karthauser additionally asserts that, during Watson's stint as executive director, she was arbitrarily passed over for promotions and assigned additional work due to Watson's favoritism for a female employee who previously had an intimate relationship with Watson.

Karthauser's lawsuit further claims she raised concerns with Fletcher regarding unauthorized access to accounts she managed, including her personal Facebook account that was used to manage the official Columbia 911 Facebook account and the FBI-overseen CJIS database, and that Fletcher and other management took no action on her complaints.

The lawsuit adds that Fletcher around June 2018 defended Columbia 911's work with a consulting company that employed Watson following Watson's resignation from Columbia 911 in the wake of the sexual harassment claims.

"During a District Board meeting, the Board had expressed a possible conflict of interest with working with the company due to Watson's previous employment with the District," the lawsuit states, adding, "... Fletcher stood up for Watson and stated that Watson's knowledge of the District would be beneficial for the upcoming project."

The Spotlight was unable to independently confirm via a review of meeting minutes whether Watson had worked as a contractor for the public communications company following his resignation from Columbia 911.

Fletcher declined comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation, and deferred to the Columbia County District Attorney's Office. A request to Columbia 911 Communications Board President Henry Heimuller for comment received no response.

Karthauser's communications certifications have since lapsed, per DPSST records. She remains listed as a volunteer firefighter with Clatskanie Rural Fire Protection District.

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