Police misconduct saga takes new turn in Forest Grove and Cornelius

A rash of finger-pointing and lawsuit threats erupted last week from current and former police department employees in Cornelius and Forest Grove.

Cornelius Police Sgt. Shawn Watts and former Forest Grove Police Chief Kerry Aleshire notified those respective cities of potential lawsuits related to an explosive, 15-page letter of complaint written in mid-October by four Cornelius officers, one of whom was Watts.

Addressed to the Cornelius City Council and City Manager Rob Drake, the letter alleged misconduct by former Cornelius Police Chief Paul Rubenstein, then-Capt. Joe Noffsinger and Officer Dustin DeHaven. It sparked the administrative leave and eventual retirement of Rubenstein, a demotion for Noffsinger and disciplinary action for DeHaven, who was fully cleared of wrongdoing in one incident, but only partially cleared in another, according to Noffsinger.

The controversy spilled over into Forest Grove, where Police Officer Ryan Wolf reported to then-Capt. Aaron Ashbaugh that Rubenstein had been seen at the home of a suspected drug dealer.

Further investigation found no evidence that the home was connected to drug-dealing, nor that Rubenstein’s visit was wrong in any way. Instead, the handling of that initial report became the bigger issue.

According to Don Rees, the Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney who investigated the case, Ashbaugh told Wolf to write his report in an internal memo, which he did. Ashbaugh then removed the information about Rubenstein, claiming later that Aleshire ordered him to remove it in order to protect Rubenstein.

Through a tort claim filed by his lawyer, Jon Weiner of Harris Law Firm, Aleshire called Ashbaugh’s statements false, defamatory and reckless. As the story spread widely through the law-enforcement community, Aleshire suffered emotional distress and damage to his reputation, the claim said.

According to the claim, Aleshire “intends to file a civil action for monetary damages” against the City of Forest Grove, the City of Cornelius, Aaron Ashbaugh (who retired last month) and the four Cornelius police officers who wrote and signed the original letter of complaint.

Forest Grove’s attorney, Paul Elsner said he believes the city did nothing improper. Once officials learned of the allegation as to the tampering with the memo, the matter was brought to the attention of the District Attorney’s office which was asked to do an investigation, he said. Through that investigation and the report that followed, “Aleshire was completely exonerated,” Elsner said.

“We knew he was unhappy,” said Forest Grove City Manager Michael Sykes, but added he knew nothing of Aleshire’s tort claim until it was filed last week.

One of the four officers to sign the letter, Shawn Watts, filed his own tort-claim notice April 2, the same day as Aleshire. According to the claim filed by his lawyer, Daniel Thenell of the Thenell Law Group, Watts reserves the right to sue the City of Cornelius, Rubenstein, Noffsinger and City Manager Rob Drake for personal damages, due to their “unlawful” disclosure of his identity as one of the letter-writers.

Watts’ potential claims could include unlawful retaliation and discrimination in violation of the Oregon Whistleblower Statute and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as violations of the U.S. Constitution’s freedom-of-speech protection, according to the claim.

Aleshire’s claim is based on defamation, invasion of privacy, negligent supervision and retention, vicarious liability and reckless and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

There are two people who can’t sue the city: Rubenstein and Ashbaugh, who each signed separation agreements with their respective cities in which they waived their rights to file lawsuits related to their employment. In exchange, Rubenstein got a severance payment of $10,000 and a promise that the City of Cornelius would not sue him. Rubenstein and Drake signed the agreement Feb. 14, both accepting the risk that “the facts with respect to this Agreement” may turn out to be different than each believed at the time, but that new facts would not change the agreement.

Ashbaugh got no severance pay, but did get the same promise from the City of Forest Grove not to sue him for anything. Both men retain their respective cities’ continued obligation “to defend and indemnify” them against lawsuits, as long as the civil claims filed against them relate to legitimate actions within the scope of their police work for their cities.

“We would not defend anyone for an act beyond the scope of their duties,” Drake said.

Drake and Sykes both said legal costs would be covered by insurance and would not come out of the city budget.

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