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Couple Sues Sheriff, County For $10 Million

An Enterprise couple and their charitable trusts are suing Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen and the county in federal court, seeking more than $10 million in damages for alleged defamation and interference with their business activities.

Bruce and Venese Hampton filed the complaint March 15 in U.S. District Court in Pendleton. Bruce Hampton also is listed as a plaintiff as trustee of two Hampton trusts.

Named as defendants are Steen, the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office and Wallowa County.

The suit alleges that Steen, County Commissioner Paul Castilleja, and an Imnaha man, Lloyd Trackwell, conspired to interfere in the plaintiffs’ economic relationships, among other claims.

Castilleja and Trackwell are not named as defendants.

Steen, contacted this week by the Chieftain, declined to comment on the case. Plaintiffs’ and defendants’ Portland-based attorneys, respectively, David Angeli and Steve Kramer, were both unavailable for comment. The newspaper could not reach Castilleja by phone Tuesday morning.

Trackwell commented via e-mail. “This lawsuit is intended to silence honest people who dare to speak the truth,” he stated. “It is a lawsuit intended to punish honest public officials for doing their jobs… I believe that everyone named in this lawsuit will eventually be vindicated.”

The Hamptons’ complaint, 23 pages long, states that Trackwell, who, according to the plaintiffs, “was at all times an agent of Steen and of [the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office],” deliberately interfered in numerous economic relationships the Hamptons had with various parties, thereby ending those relationships.

Most of the allegations of interference in some respect concern the Hamptons’ real estate holdings and arrangements already existing or in the works with private land conservation organizations, similarly interested government agencies such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, title companies, real estate firms, and a bank.

The complaint contends the defendants engaged in a “scheme to discredit, defame, coerce, and injure” the plaintiffs while “wrongfully” interfering with the plaintiffs’ contractual relationships.

According to the plaintiffs, Trackwell became a collection agent for American Bank of Missouri in August 2007. His agreement with ABM allowed him to try to collect a debt “allegedly owed by plaintiffs to ABM,” the complaint states. “ABM agreed to pay Lloyd Trackwell 45% of any monies Lloyd Trackwell collected from plaintiffs on the alleged debt.”

Thereafter, the Hamptons say, Trackwell began contacting their various business associates and even the pastor of their church. Their complaint alleges that in August 2009 communications Trackwell had with their pastor and with other church members, Trackwell “falsely accused plaintiffs of failing to pay their debts, of tax evasion, fraud,” and he called the Hamptons “liars.”

Also in 2009, the complaint states, Trackwell contacted a title company owner and falsely asserted that the Hamptons “were under investigation” by the FBI and the Oregon Department of Justice.

The complaint lists other instances of Trackwell contacting the Hamptons’ associates.

The Hamptons allege that Trackwell also filed false complaints against them with the Oregon Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies.

Trackwell, Steen and Castilleja have met “regularly” at the sheriff’s office “to coordinate their plans in furthering their conspiracy and enterprise to discredit, defame, coerce, extort and injure” the Hamptons, the plaintiffs allege.

The complaint lists further claims for arbitrary law enforcement “for the purpose of harassment and interference,” infliction of emotional distress, wrongful initiation of civil proceedings, and for violating Oregon’s racketeering laws.

The filing asks the court to award economic damages of $5,133,000 and another $5 million in non-economic damages.

Although Trackwell is not a defendant in the suit, his e-mailed statement termed it “the latest in a series of lawsuits intended to break me financially to keep me from speaking the truth.”