Deputy fired in part because he wore uniform on campaign trail

Deschutes County Sheriff L. Shane Nelson, left, and former deputy Eric Kozowski. (Bulletin file photos)

Three years after a bitter and costly race for Deschutes County sheriff, Shane Nelson and Eric Kozowski are still fighting — and it’s still costly.

Kozowski was fired for conduct infractions months after losing the sheriff’s seat to incumbent Nelson.

He sued in federal court, a battle that has so far cost the county $283,000 in legal fees. The office seems intent on taking the matter to trial, which could happen later this year.

During the 2016 race, Nelson pledged to enforce the rules following scandals at the sheriff’s office. Kozowski’s lawsuit is one of five active legal actions involving the Deschutes County Sheriff’s office.

Kozowski, a 48-year-old Marine veteran who served in the Iraq War, was hired as a deputy in March 2010. In July 2015, former Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton retired amid scandals involving subordinates. One was Scott Beard, a former captain who on Blanton’s watch embezzled more than $200,000 while engaging in an affair with another officer’s wife. Beard is in prison.

Nelson, then a captain, was appointed by the County Commission to serve the remainder of Blanton’s term. In March 2016, Kozowski filed paperwork to run for sheriff in the November 2016 election. Nelson was the only other candidate on the ballot.

It was the first contested run for sheriff in Deschutes County in 16 years. It was also the most expensive race for sheriff that year in the state — the total raised by both candidates, $100,000, was about equal to all other sheriff races in Oregon.

The race was acrimonious. Kozowski campaigned as a change candidate and frequently criticized Nelson’s leadership.

Nelson won the race by 10 percentage points.

Kozowski has said that after he filed to run against Nelson, he and sheriff’s employees who supported him were subject to harassment and unequal treatment.

Kozowski filed several complaints with the Oregon Department of Justice, but an investigator found insufficient evidence Nelson violated state election law.

Kozowski alleges that between June 2016 and October 2017, he was unfairly subjected to 12 conduct investigations. Several of the instances of alleged misconduct occurred years earlier. The allegations included failing to arrest a subject in 2016, being rude to a government employee and failing to write a report regarding a stolen cellphone.

Kozowski had no disciplinary record before he ran for sheriff, but in the weeks after the election, the heat on him increased, according to court filings.

One day in March 2017, he was served three notices of investigation for alleged policy violations involving his run for sheriff. One was that he wore his deputy uniform during campaign events and candidate forums, in violation of the office’s uniform policy.

Nelson also wore his work uniform during those campaign events, but his attorneys have defended it, reasoning that as sheriff, Nelson is always on duty.

Kozowski was placed on administrative leave in September 2017. On Jan. 31 2018, he was sent a letter terminating his employment. The next month, he sued in federal court alleging wrongful discharge and retaliating against a whistleblower.

The sheriff’s office has refused to participate in settlement negotiations with Kozowski, and the case appears likely headed for a jury trial, a rare step in such lawsuits, according to Kozowski’s attorney, Michael McGean.

“That’s the direction we’re heading,” he said.

According to county procurement records, the county has so far paid $283,000 in legal fees to fight Kozowski’s complaint, one to a firm in Salem and another one in Portland.

Court records show the suit has been fought vigorously by both sides. Parties have fought subpoenas and declined to turn over documents.

Ultimately a number of sheriff’s office employees were deposed in Bend, including Nelson. After Capt. Paul Garrison was interviewed last fall, his name was added individually to the complaint.

So far, a “ton” of documents have exchanged hands, many from independent investigator Tim Moore, McGean said.

There are four other pending lawsuits against the sheriff’s office.

“I don’t know that that number is extraordinarily high,” said county attorney David Doyle. “There tend to be peaks and valleys, and there’s not a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it.”

The next round of motions in the Kozowski lawsuit is due May 17.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com

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