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Staton promises 'transparent' departure, when it happens

Sheriff Dan Staton may take a while to step down, but he says his departure won't be comparable to the slow, demoralizing downfall of former Sheriff Bernie Giusto.

Instead of obfuscations, Staton says he will go out with transparency: "Everything is an open book.”

Months of turmoil surrounding the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office peaked this week when the Portland Tribune broke the news that Staton is likely to step down from his post by early 2017.

Staton says it doesn’t have anything to do with the newest allegation against him, which he denies: that he dangled a promotion before a union president to stave off a no-confidence vote. The allegation was first reported by the Tribune on Tuesday.

Staton’s likely departure before the end of his term would return a familiar face to a prominent role: former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese. Staton says he’ll designate Reese as his successor in the event of his stepping down.

That move could buy time, as Reese is a friend of Staton's most prominent critic, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.

It also could be a welcome bit of clarity for some of his employees.

“Things are upside-down and very stressful" in the sheriff's office, says Brian Martinek, a former sheriff’s official who also worked as a Portland assistant chief. “People are afraid. ... The ship doesn’t have a rudder right now because it's all focused on stuff that's coming down on the sheriff, and that’s unfortunate.”

Staton, 57, concedes the controversies around him have taken their toll. But before resigning he says he wants to see progress in his office's consolidation with the Fairview Police Department, which could be in place by the end of the year.

"After that I'll probably start considering (stepping down)," he says, "I'm getting up there in age."

Staton's open consideration of retirement came after a key law enforcement deputies' union asked him to do so. At press time, he also was under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice over other allegations.

Apparently fueling the deputies' call on Staton to resign was a claim that he dangled a potential promotion to their union president.

Staton says he did nothing wrong. But he admits that last Wednesday, Staton told the president of the union, Matt Ferguson, that some promotions to sergeant were in the making, and he “reminded” Ferguson that he was on the list.

The conversation took place shortly before a meeting of the Multnomah County Deputy Sheriffs Association to discuss a potential no-confidence vote.

Ferguson felt the promotion discussion was an effort to induce him to steer the union away from a vote, he told his members at the meeting later that evening, according to a source within the DSA ranks. Ferguson's take on Staton’s intent has since spread rapidly through the DSA membership and beyond.

Ferguson declined to discuss the phone conversation. Of the report that Staton sought to influence him, Ferguson says, “That's a serious allegation, and I don't have any comment on that at this time."

Staton denies any attempt to influence Ferguson. He says he discussed the likely sergeant promotions with Ferguson in response to a question about them. He characterized the conversation as giving Ferguson information to address his members’ questions.

Staton also says Ferguson, though on the list to be promoted, has too low a score to be promoted during this round of testing. A new testing process will begin in July.

“He’s nowhere near the top,” Staton says of Ferguson. “My process is whoever scores the highest, that’s who we promote. … There was no offer to promote him. He’s not going to be promoted.”

The new allegation comes as the sheriff is under investigation by the state Department of Justice over whether he improperly collected information on a charter review committee that is considering whether to recommend making the sheriff’s job appointed. Staton has denied any wrongdoing.

Vote discussed

Last Wednesday, April 13, the vast majority of about 50 deputies attending the meeting of the DSA voted in a straw poll that they favor a vote of no-confidence, citing Staton’s “failed leadership,” the Portland Tribune first reported last week.

On Monday, leaders of the union met with Staton at a coffee shop to discuss the vote. They have scheduled another meeting for this coming Monday.

Staton says the union asked if he would step down, and scheduled a second meeting Monday to discuss his final answer.

But he now accuses the union of being unfair by going public, saying "that the DSA has some agenda that they’re working off of.”

They’ve made their decision," Staton says. "They want to jump the gun and want to continue to railroad this. They can have at it. … There’s no factual basis to anything.”

Compared to Giusto’s downfall, Staton’s political situation has deteriorated far more rapidly.

In early February, the Willamette Week newspaper published the first of several articles detailing allegations that Staton is abusive, vindictive and crude among other things.

After the Tribune disclosed a report showing disparities in the use of force in the jails, the weekly published allegations that two employees were punished for their role in writing it.

In interviews earlier this month, Staton said he is cognizant of what happened during the final year of the tenure of former Sheriff Giusto, who faced questions about his honesty and moral fitness. Staton was a sergeant at the time.

“I've got to make sure that this does not impact my staff,” he said. “We’ve seen in the past what happens when a sheriff comes under scrutiny.”

Nevertheless, he said, “These innuendos keep growing. … It leaves you with a feeling that you’re being targeted for something, but you don’t know what it is.”

It’s not just the DSA that has urged Staton to resign. Former Sheriff Bob Skipper, who succeeded Giusto and then designated Staton to succeed him also has recommended Staton step down — albeit for personal reasons, according to Staton.

“His concern was about the health problems I’ve had in the past,” Staton said.

He stressed that he still has the support of the largest of the unions representing his employees, the Multnomah County Corrections Deputies Association. Association President Sgt. Catherine Gorton said in an email her members will wait until the DOJ investigation is complete before taking up the issue.

But if the deputy sheriffs association proceeds with a vote of no confidence, then the union representing more than 200 nonsworn sheriff's employees is likely to follow suit, said Jason Heilbrun, president of Local 88 of the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees.

Heilburn said the portrayal in several media accounts that Staton is vindictive and untruthful seems accurate to him. He said Staton and his administration use fear-based management and have engaged in “underhanded types of things trying to pit the unions against one another.”

Staton rejects the criticism, saying he doesn't know what it's based on. He says some of it may come with the job.

"I’m not going to make everybody happy," he says. "There are decisions that I make that are not going to make everyone comfortable."