A former deputy’s behavior during his campaign for Deschutes County sheriff in 2016 is among the reasons he was fired, according to an internal investigation released Friday by the sheriff’s office.
The investigation, which was released following a request by The Bulletin, found Eric Kozowski violated office policies by wearing his official uniform at campaign events. Kozowski was also investigated for talking publicly to local media about an investigation involving a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office.
In addition, the investigation noted citizen complaints about Kozowski and determined that he had violated office protocol while investigating two criminal cases.
Kozowski was placed on paid administrative leave in September because of the internal investigation’s findings. He was fired Jan. 31.
In response, Kozowski’s attorney, Michael McGean, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eugene in February alleging retaliation and a discriminatory interpretation of sheriff’s office policies.
McGean told The Bulletin his client became the subject of numerous disciplinary investigations because he ran for sheriff against incumbent Sheriff Shane Nelson.
Before then, Kozowski had no record of disciplinary actions in his career, McGean said.
“Deputy Kozowski’s termination is clearly retaliation for exercising his constitutional rights of free speech and political participation in running against Sheriff Nelson,” McGean said the day his client was fired.
Sheriff’s Capt. Paul Garrison, the point of contact assigned to discuss the internal investigation, was unavailable Friday.
The bulk of the federal lawsuit focuses on Kozowski’s violation of the office’s uniform policy as a factor in his dismissal.
Kozowski wore his uniform to a televised candidate debate and a forum because Nelson was wearing his official uniform, according to the lawsuit.
Nelson said he was allowed to wear his uniform for personal campaign appearances because he was “essentially on duty all the time,” the lawsuit states. The uniform policy says Nelson, as an elected official, can attend political events on duty while in uniform, but other sheriff’s office employees cannot attend political events on duty, so they cannot be in uniform.
Kozowski’s lawyer said state law acknowledges Nelson is an elected official, but does not state he is on duty all the time.
There is a specific state regulation that prohibits a local government agency from allowing one member to wear badges, uniforms and emblems of an office to campaign while not allowing another employee who is running, McGean noted in the lawsuit.
Nelson is not exempt from the office policy and should not have been in uniform, McGean said.
“State law does not allow a sitting sheriff to create a double standard regarding use of uniforms while campaigning,” McGean said. “Deputy Kozowski was ultimately terminated for his alleged violation of this illegal policy.”
As for Kozowski speaking about an open investigation, the sheriff’s office investigation found he made public comments to the media during the campaign about Tim Leak, a lieutenant who was on paid leave for 20 months before finally agreeing in February to retire and accept a severance package. Leak was placed on paid leave May 17, 2016, for alleged policy violations.
“I know I and several other employees brought some issues to Sheriff Nelson back in February (2016) regarding Tim Leak and a couple of other employees, and it’s taken months for, apparently now, for them to take action,” Kozowski said publicly on May, 19, 2016, two days after Leak was placed on leave.
McGean said the Leak case had no bearing on his client’s dismissal, and was closed without any finding of a violation or any discipline against Kozowski.
Besides Kozowski’s conduct on the campaign trial, the investigation described issues with how he handled criminal cases.
Specifically, the investigation notes a sex abuse case on which Kozowski was working in August 2016. The investigation claims he failed to recognize the potential seriousness of the case being a Measure 11 crime, meaning a conviction would come with a mandatory sentence.
Kozowski never briefed his supervisor to discuss involving a detective and never sought additional resources to collect evidence, according to the investigation. In addition, he interviewed the suspect before gathering information from witnesses.
“His failure to perform an adequate investigation, perform thorough interviews and seize evidence appropriately led to this case not moving forward to prosecution,” a report concluded.
Kozowski was hired as a deputy in Deschutes County in March 2010 after working in the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office for about eight years. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and served an active tour of duty in Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991.
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