The Benton County Sheriff is facing a $1 million federal lawsuit from a former deputy who claims the sheriff and county violated his civil rights.
The legal complaint from former sheriff’s deputy Eric Konzelman argues Sheriff Scott Jackson and other county officials violated the deputy’s constitutional rights to free speech, due process and equal protection when he was fired last March. The federal lawsuit names Jackson and Benton County as defendants.
The new federal suit, filed July 10 in the U.S District Court in Eugene, claims, “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.”
Jackson told OPB he can’t respond to active litigation and gave a statement to the Corvallis Gazette-Times that avoided any discussion of the case’s details.
“A lot of the community knows me and knows what kind of person I am,” Jackson said. “I ask that they be patient and wait until the facts come out.
Jackson commended the deputies and staff at the sheriff’s office for their professionalism and asks the community to not allow “nonsense” to impact the deputies’ reputation.
Konzelman’s attorney and the Benton County counsel also declined to comment for this story.
The federal suit isn’t Konzelman’s first legal step against Jackson. As the Gazette-Times first reported, Konzelman sued Jackson last March claiming the sheriff’s place of residence wasn’t in Benton County, but an hour away in the Lincoln County city of Waldport. Konzelman filed that legal action the same day he was terminated.
Konzelman was fired following an internal investigation into the arrest of a minor, which his superiors deemed was done improperly. Konzelman contends that while he could have approached the arrest better, he believes he had probable cause and the situation did not warrant termination. The lawsuit argues his firing was retaliation after he had lodged complaints against the sheriff with the deputies’ union. Konzelman argues the union colluded with the sheriff against him.
Konzelman’s federal suit suggests the conflict began two years ago, in June 2017, when he was one of several members of the deputies’ union to ask Sgt. David Peterson to contemplate running against incumbent Sheriff Jackson. Their dissatisfaction with Jackson’s tenure as sheriff was the impetus behind the suggestion, according to Konzelman’s suit. There were also discussions within the union about holding a vote of no confidence in Jackson.
A Facebook page was created for union members to discuss concerns about the sheriff and to possibly register support for Sgt. Peterson. Konzelman was an administrator of the Facebook page.
Ultimately the deputies didn’t hold a vote of no confidence, and Peterson didn’t run for sheriff, despite several employees’ dissatisfaction with Jackson, according to the lawsuit. Jackson would go on to run unopposed for sheriff in 2018 and win easily.
The lawsuit states two members of the union reported in late 2017 that Konzelman and others were pushing Peterson to run against the sheriff. The suit says Benton County Sheriff’s Office started internal investigations led by a Marion County sergeant, against Sgt. Peterson and another deputy.
In February 2018, Konzelman said he was improperly interviewed without a union rep or attorney, and he was asked for the login to the deputie’s Facebook page – the latter request, if true, could violate Oregon law. A month later, Konzelman was put on administrative leave as he was investigated for his truthfulness and recollection, but he was cleared.
Not long after in May 2018, Konzelman alleges his reputation and career in law enforcement were threatened when his credibility was investigated as part of a Brady Law procedure.
Under the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are required to turn over evidence to the defense that could undermine the credibility of government witnesses, which includes police officers.
A review concluded that Konzelman had violated a sheriff’s office general order regarding dishonesty – that’s despite the previous investigation that cleared the deputy.
But what ultimately led to Konzelman’s firing was the deputy’s arrest of a minor, last October. Konzelman claims he had probable cause to arrest the young person for attempted burglary. But Konzelman failed to inform the minor’s mother of the arrest, and she filed a complaint against Konzelman. This lapse was the official reason for Konzelman’s termination. Konzelman contends the multiple investigations and his ultimate termination were retaliation against actions that are protected by union rules and constitutional freedoms.
Konzelman claims he has suffered damages totaling at least $1 million including “lost wages and benefits, lost economic potential, harm to reputation, emotional distress, and attorney’s fees.”
The Corvallis Gazette-Times reports the case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Michael McShane. Jackson and the county have three weeks to file their response.