Transcripts reveal city wanted Fesser details kept secret
Records recently released by the city of West Linn reveal that the city, its legal counsel and its insurance provider tried to keep details of the Michael Fesser case hushed up.
Despite those efforts, facts regarding Fesser's illegal arrest by West Linn police in 2017 made media headlines across the country earlier this year.
In response, West Linn city councilors, apparently appalled by the revelations, asked the city to release records of five executive sessions where council was briefed on the case to show how little they knew about it.
Fesser, a black man from Portland, was unlawfully investigated at his work by West Linn police as a favor to his boss, Eric Benson, a friend of then-WLPD Chief Terry Timeus. Benson came to Timeus with concerns that Fesser was going to file a discrimination lawsuit after complaining of racial harrassment he faced at work. Fesser eventually sued Benson and the tow company he owned, and was awarded over $400,000 in a settlement. Fesser then sued the city of West Linn — that much councilors should have known in 2018, not from executive sessions but from articles about the case which appeared in the Tidings.
In a Feb. 10 2020 executive session City Attorney Tim Ramis informed the council that to settle the case, the city's insurance provider, CIS, would pay Fesser $600,000 and Fesser would meet with city officials in person.
Ramis said the meeting between Fesser and city officials was in place of a letter of apology from the city, which would "buy into his (Fesser's) theory."
"While $600,000 is a lot of money and it's unpalatable in many ways, there's also good reason to avoid going to trial on the issue and exposing all of the evidence that there is on the case," Ramis said.
Ramis and Interim City Manager John Williams explained that a letter couldn't be kept secret.
Mayor Russ Axelrod and Council President Teri Cummings, it seemed would have prefered to not settle the case this way, but agreed it was better than the drama that a trial was sure to bring.
"Count on it casting a bad light on us anyways," Police Captain Peter Mahuna said.
Mahuna also said nothing like this would ever happen with WLPD again and that there was only one officer involved with the incident still working at the department.
Later that same night, Feb. 10, daming details of the case, including racist text messages between Benson and a WLPD detective, were revealed by The Oregonian.
The release of executive session records included sessions from July 2, 2018; Sept. 4, 2018; Feb. 19, 2019 and Dec. 5, 2019, in addition to the Feb. 10, 2020 meeting.
In the July 2018 session, Ramis informed the council the police department had been served with a tort claim alleging that a Portland man lost his job after an illegal investigation by WLPD.Then-city manager Eileen Stein mentioned that of the three officers accused of illegally investigating the man, one was still with WLPD.
Councilors learned more about the case at the following executive session in September, which current police chief Terry Kruger attended.
Ramis told the council that the city conducted an internal investigation into the matter which found no basis supporting Fesser's claims.
The city attorney explained they would try to prove that WLPD had probable cause to investigate Fesser. He added that the only reason the DA didn't prosecute Fesser was because Fesser and Benson settled in a civil compromise.
Kruger told the council that Benson had come to Timeus with complaints about Fesser, including suspicions that Fesser was stealing money from A&B Towing. Kruger said that WLPD then contacted the Portland Police Bureau about the matter but that Portland police decided not to pursue it because its caseload was already so full and the amount Benson alleged were stolen were so small.
"The (WLPD detectives) that looked into it saw that there were many, many instances of theft and were able to establish probable cause on that," Kruger said.
Kruger went on to say that WLPD had Portland police arrest and interview Fesser at Multnomah County jail, though the arrest and interview were infact conducted by WLPD.
At this point, Councilor Brena Perry (whose term ended in 2018) asked why West Linn would investigate the alleged thefts, when they took place at A&B Towing, located in Portland.
"You're a certified police officer within the state of Oregon, so you can conduct investigations, or your police powers are statewide," Kruger responded. "It's not uncommon for police agencies to conduct investigations outside of their areas."
Kruger also explained that Benson was a resident of West Linn and his towing company, A&B, was contracted to tow for the city.
"Well, that actually makes some kind of sense in a way," Axelrod said at this point.
"If it wasn't a West Linn citizen then I would have a concern. But if he lives in West Linn, does business in West Linn, then I think we should support our West Linn people," Perry chimed in. "It's good for our guys to get experience outside of West Linn to do other things," she added later.
Cummings mentioned a perception that West Linn police don't have much to do in town, so officers venture into other jurisdictions to fill their time. Perry responded that they were relying on Kruger to change that perception of the police.
Kruger said it would have been great for PPB to investigate the case as a favor to West Linn, but maintained, "It's not an illegal investigation. There wasn't illegal surveillance. It wasn't an unlawful arrest. There wasn't a violation of his civil rights."
The council learned more details of the case, including the existence of the offensive text messages at the next executive session, at which Andrew Campbell, an attorney for CIS leading the city's defense in the lawsuit, was present.
"There's some text messages that I wish didn't exist ... but frankly I don't think any of that is really strong evidence that any of the officers did anything wrong," Campbell said.
Campbell noted that the "colorful language" used by witnesses and others involved in the case may be a challenge for the defense.
Campbell said that West Linn officers weren't the ones using offensive language, only the people they were communicating with. He added that if officers made clear their uneasiness with that type of language, they would sour the relationship with the witnesses.
Kruger again maintained that the involved officers were just doing their jobs.
At the following executive session on Dec. 15, 2019, Ramis and Stein informed the council that the lawsuit was heading toward a settlement.
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