The Wasco County District Attorney can’t continue to hold elected office as a prosecutor after being suspended from practicing law, according to the Oregon Department of Justice. As of Monday, the state justice department will take over the duties of DA Eric Nisley, until Gov. Kate Brown appoints a successor or a new one is elected.
But, as her chief legal agency urges ousting Nisley, Brown’s office has not committed to a process for selecting a new DA.
“At this point the Governor’s Office has not yet made a decision whether to fill the vacancy by appointment at some future date, and there isn’t a set timeline for making that decision,” Brown’s press secretary Charles Boyle said in an email Thursday.
Nisley has denied allegations of professional and sexual misconduct, and spent years fighting a 60-day disciplinary suspension for lying to state investigators.
The suspension starts Monday, Feb. 10 – a culmination of years of conflict, which led to an Oregon Supreme Court decision in Dec. 2019 upholding Nisley’s suspension. State officials and the governor appear to have only recently grappled with the idea of removing him from office, and how that will affect a rural county with about 26,000 residents and hundreds of open cases.
In a letter sent to Brown’s office on Jan. 30, Deputy Attorney General Frederick Boss wrote that Nisley’s suspension “necessitates immediate action by your office.”
In a Feb. 4 response to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Brown directed the DOJ to “discharge the responsibilities of the Wasco County District
Attorney starting Feb. 10, 2020, until I appoint a successor or one is lawfully elected.”
Those duties include appearing “on behalf of the state in each and every state criminal prosecution or grand jury proceeding within the jurisdiction.”
In an emailed statement to OPB, Nisley said he has “cooperated fully” with the state while he is suspended for two months. But he strongly disputes the DOJ’s opinion that his elected office is now forfeit.
“There is a vigorous discussion going on now between the Governor, the AG, my lawyer and the Oregon District Attorneys Association about whether the DOJ position on this is legally accurate. Until that is resolved, I cannot comment any more about this,” Nisley wrote.
On Feb. 6 Clackamas District Attorney John Foote sent a letter to Gov. Brown arguing that the Attorney General’s stance is “in direct conflict and inconsistent” with past practice.
“As the elected District Attorney, [Nisley] is an independently elected state official. Both his position and his person deserve much better and more respectful treatment,” Foote wrote.
In 2018, a trial panel for Oregon’s Disciplinary Board ruled that Nisley lied about investigating a county official. The panel rejected charges that his improper investigation was retaliation against a women he allegedly harassed.
The county official, then-county finance director Monica Morris, reported Nisley to her supervisor after a professional conference in 2011, where she said the DA sexually propositioned her and she rebuffed him. (Nisley told OPB in 2018 the incident was a joke in “extremely poor taste.”)
In 2013, Morris made two loans to an intern out of the county’s petty cash fund. Nisley asked the state to investigate, and when the DOJ declined, he began looking into it personally.
Other county officials objected. In May 2015, the Wasco County counsel filed a complaint with the Oregon State Bar.