The Oregon Department of Justice has agreed to pay $205,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Erious Johnson Jr., the agency’s top civil rights lawyer, who alleged racial profiling by his state co-workers.
Johnson sued boss Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and other agency employees last year after it was revealed he had been the target of racially motivated surveillance from within the agency.
Records also show the state agreed to pay $70,000 to settle a suit brought by Nkenge Harmon Johnson, who is married to Erious Johnson. She alleged she was improperly pushed out of her job as a spokeswoman for then-Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Under the settlements, Kitzhaber, Rosenblum and other defendants will not have to admit fault. Johnson also signed paperwork agreeing not to seek work with the state for five years.
Harmon Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive, attorney Beth Creighton, who represented Johnson, criticized Rosenblum’s agency for its handling of civil rights issues and the lawsuit.
“The Oregon Department of Justice, the arm of the state government charged with protecting our civil rights, violated the rights of its own civil rights director, Erious Johnson,” Creighton said. “To make matters worse, DOJ utilized its considerable power and resources to compound the violation with its denial and its dogged defense of its status quo, at no small cost to the taxpayers.
“Erious Johnson filed this lawsuit solely to fight that power and its abuse in order to hold DOJ accountable for this breach of trust.”
In a statement released to The Oregonian/OregonLive through her spokeswoman, Rosenblum said she is sad to see Johnson leave the agency.
“Erious has been a part of the DOJ team for over three years, and we are sad to see him leave,” Rosenblum said. “It is both a personal loss and a loss for all of DOJ.
“I will miss his wise counsel as our Civil Rights Director, but I’m proud of the work we achieved together to reach out to diverse communities throughout Oregon.”
DOJ SPIED ON OWN CIVIL RIGHTS CHIEF
Johnson’s lawsuit stemmed from revelations that he was surveilled by his own co-workers.
A Justice Department investigator, James Williams, had run a search for social media posts with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Johnson, who is African American, had posted a tweet with that hashtag and a photo of an album cover from the rap group Public Enemy.
The album cover shows crosshairs over the profile of a police officer. Johnson’s tweet also contained the phrase “Consider yourself… WARNED!!!”
Williams then downloaded Johnson’s entire Twitter history, generated a report called a “threat assessment,” and sent it up the Justice Department chain of command.
Johnson sued Williams, Rosenblum, top deputy Fred Boss, criminal justice division head Darin Tweedt and special agent David Kirby. Johnson said he was racially profiled and that his civil rights were violated.
After news of the court filings went public, Rosenblum — amid heading a task force to develop policies that combat racial profiling — had an outside investigator paid $88,000 to review Justice Department policies.
The investigator, Carolyn Walker, found that surveillance of Johnson was an “isolated” incident. But, Walker found, the Justice Department likely broke laws that bar collecting information on people based on their political speech.
Rosenblum publicly apologized and fired Williams, the investigator who snooped on Johnson.
Williams sued, and argued his firing was improper because he was only following orders. Eventually, Sherwood-based arbitrator David Blair ordered Williams reinstated with back pay. He said firing Williams, a seven-year veteran with a pristine record, looked “inappropriate, unnecessary and clearly excessive.”
At the time, Rosenblum said she was “disappointed” in Williams’ reappointment to his job.
In the settlement signed this month, Johnson agreed to leave his $123,000 a year job by October 13.
KITZHABER AIDE CLAIMED RETALIATION
In her lawsuit, Harmon Johnson argued that Kitzhaber and his close associates forced her out of her position for speaking up about what she perceived were “myriad improprieties.”
In court filings, Harmon Johnson said she observed governor’s office staff directing employees to conduct campaign work while at their state jobs, which would violate of state law.
Harmon Johnson alleged she had been directed by Kitzhaber and Mike Bonetto, his chief of staff, to manage communications and events for then-first lady Cylvia Hayes that pushed beyond the boundary of her government role. She said Hayes “took umbrage” with her and angled to get her fired. Harmon Johnson was let go in July, 2014.
After leaving Kitzhaber’s office, Harmon Johnson took a job as president and chief executive of the Urban League of Portland.
— Gordon R. Friedman
Authored by Janine Maureen