A former Benton County sheriff’s deputy is suing the county and Sheriff Scott Jackson in federal court for $1 million, claiming his civil rights were violated by allegedly improper and retaliatory disciplinary actions ending in the deputy’s termination early this year.
Jackson said he could not address the claims directly because of the pending lawsuit but asked for the community's patience while the case is being litigated in court (see box with this story for full statement).
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Eugene by Eric Konzelman, the same ex-deputy who filed a complaint in Benton County Circuit Court alleging that Jackson’s purchase of a second home in Lincoln County violates the residency requirement of his job and disqualifies him from holding office. That court action is still pending.
In the federal suit, Konzelman claims that his constitutional free speech and due process rights were violated, as well as state and federal protections against workplace retaliation.
Konzelman, who had been with the Sheriff’s Office full-time since 2007, was fired on March 8 for what an internal affairs investigation characterized as an improper arrest. In his 30-page civil complaint, Konzelman claims that while the arrest could have been handled better, the issues involved were minor and did not warrant termination.
He also takes issue with internal investigations that resulted in disciplinary action against him.
All of these actions, the lawsuit claims, were in retaliation for Konzelman’s role in a short-lived effort to challenge Jackson’s leadership of the Sheriff’s Office.
“They’ve ruined his ability to be a police officer,” said Konzelman’s attorney, Dan Thenell of the Thenell Law Group in Portland.
“This is one of the worst examples of retaliation I’ve ever seen.”
In June 2017, the suit claims, Konzelman and several other members of the deputies’ union approached Sgt. David Peterson about running against Jackson in the 2018 election. There was also some discussion about holding a vote of no confidence in the sheriff.
In the end, Peterson decided not to run, the no confidence vote was never held and a Facebook page created to support the campaign was taken down before ever going live.
According to the lawsuit, union leaders informed the sheriff that some members were taking steps to challenge his leadership, resulting in investigations of Peterson and the late Brent Iverson, who died due to a medical issue on May 27.
In connection with those investigations, the lawsuit states, Konzelman was interviewed in February 2018 about his role in the creation of the never-launched Facebook page the previous June. Due to the passage of time, he told the interviewer, he was unable to remember some of the details of his involvement.
The next month, Konzelman was notified that he was now under investigation in regard to the truthfulness of his statements during the February interview, and he was placed on administrative leave. The investigator determined there was insufficient evidence to conclude Konzelman had been untruthful or had intended to deceive anyone in the earlier interview, the lawsuit states.
In the meantime, the Sheriff’s Office had notified the Benton County district attorney that “there may be Brady Law issues regarding Sheriff’s Office deputies,” according to the lawsuit. Under a Supreme Court decision in a 1963 case called Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must disclose anything that could help the defendant in a criminal case, including information bearing on the credibility of government witnesses.
In May, the lawsuit states, the DA’s Brady Review Committee concluded that Konzelman had violated a Sheriff’s Office general order regarding truthfulness — despite the fact that the internal investigation found insufficient evidence to support that claim — and that this information would have to be disclosed in cases where Konzelman was called as a witness. That determination, the lawsuit claims, caused serious harm to Konzelman’s law enforcement career.
In November, Konzelman filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the county, claiming that the disciplinary actions against him were retaliatory in nature. The complaint also named the union for failing to stick up for him against the Sheriff’s Office.
The investigation that ultimately cost Konzelman his job had to do with his arrest of a minor accused of attempted burglary. Konzelman concluded there was probable cause to take the young man into custody while he did additional investigation. The suspect was released a little over 24 hours later and no charges were filed, but the young man’s mother filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office.
The internal investigation concluded that, while Konzelman may have had sufficient probable cause to make the arrest, he erred by failing to notify the suspect’s mother of his arrest and by failing to conduct a thorough investigation.
Those conclusions, the lawsuit alleges, are not sufficient to support Konzelman’s termination. Rather, the suit claims, the Sheriff’s Office was punishing him for supporting a challenge to the sheriff’s leadership and for filing the labor complaint. It also alleges that the earlier investigations stemmed from union activities that are protected under the First Amendment.
“There is sufficient information and belief to allege that it was defendant Jackson’s policy to harass, ostracize, and investigate individuals in the Benton County Sheriff’s Office if they reported unlawful or unconstitutional activities or presented an electoral threat to Sheriff Jackson,” the complaint states.
“It’s completely inappropriate to investigate Eric Konzelman for being involved in a Facebook page related to his union activities,” Thenell added in an interview. “You cannot investigate people for union or political activities, and that is exactly what they have done.”
Benton County Administrator Joe Kerby and District Attorney John Haroldson declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks at least $1 million for back wages, lost earning potential and harm to reputation, plus attorney’s fees. It also asks for an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages for “mental pain and suffering, humiliation, worry, anxiety, fear” and other harm.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Michael McShane. Jackson and the county have three weeks to file their response to the complaint.