Last June, Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton ignored county purchasing procedures and the objections of a county vehicle manager to use public money to buy himself a new, $33,623 Dodge Charger to replace a car less than a year old.
Emails WW obtained through a public records request show that Staton instructed a subordinate to proceed with the purchase even after the county's vehicle fleet manager refused to buy the car Staton wanted—both because it was too expensive and because Staton did not have his old car long enough to qualify for a new one.
The new information comes just a week after the Multnomah County Deputy Sheriff's Association and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees—which represents more than 100 civilian employees—both asked Staton to resign.
"Sheriff Staton has lost sight of our community's demands for transparency and accountability," the deputies said in a May 9 statement. "We no longer have confidence in his ability to lead our agency."
Until now, the allegations against Staton—that he bullied subordinates, ridiculed fellow elected officials, sexually harassed his top female deputy and threatened various perceived enemies—could be lumped together as bad management. And an Oregon Department of Justice investigation completed earlier this month found no evidence of criminal conduct on his part.
But the stakes are raised by behavior detailed in dozens of emails about Staton's desire to replace his new, taxpayer-funded car with an even newer one, outfitted with pricey extras that had nothing to do with his job.
By forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for an unnecessary vehicle equipped with luxuries like an electric sunroof, shiny oversized wheels and satellite radio, Staton not only flouted his duty to be a responsible steward of public funds, he did so in plain view of a staff of officers sworn to uphold the law.
Multnomah County chief operating officer Marissa Madrigal says Staton's purchase was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money. "This purchase by the sheriff is an outlier and outside our policy, practice and standards," Madrigal says.
On the morning of Wednesday, June 24, 2015, Sgt. Bryan White, the head of logistics for the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, emailed Garret Vanderzanden, who as the county's fleet manager is responsible for purchasing and maintaining 700 county vehicles, with money set aside from the county's general fund.
White told Vanderzanden that Staton wanted to buy four vehicles for his department, but one—a top-of-the-line Dodge Charger for the sheriff's personal use—was a particular priority. The first car Staton wanted was a fully-loaded, all-wheel drive Charger SXT Plus, costing $37,880.
"Attached is the sticker for the car the Sheriff wants to buy. He spent about an hour on the Gresham Dodge lot today looking at their Chargers and he has his heart set on this one," White wrote to Vanderzanden at 3:31 pm on June 24. "The Sheriff would like to pick up the car from Dodge by Friday afternoon. I know you would normally take receipt of the car first, but he's itching to get it."
Vanderzanden expressed concerns, so Staton looked for a less expensive vehicle.
When Vanderzanden sought a price quote for the car Staton wanted, the fleet manager at Tonkin Dodge warned the car was expensive: "The trouble with going to a V8 [engine] is that you have to go to an R/T model (hence the very substantial price increase)."
The car that Staton settled on, a Dodge Charger R/T, was loaded with extras: a 5.7-liter V8 engine, leather seats, a five-year subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio, a "wheels and tunes" package, including 10 speakers, a 552-watt amplifier and 20-by-8-inch polished aluminum wheels, and an extra-dark tint package for $599. Total cost of the vehicle: $33,623.
That was significantly more than the $25,701 the county had paid just one year earlier for a 2014 Dodge Charger for Staton. But the 2014 model had a smaller engine, smaller wheels and no sunroof.
There was another significant problem beyond the expense of the car.
The county replaces its vehicles on a regular schedule, setting aside money each year toward the next scheduled purchase. White had asked Vanderzanden to purchase replacements for four vehicles. For three of them, Vanzerzanden had set aside substantially all of the purchase price.
But Vanderzanden, who typically replaces county cars every seven years, did not have any money reserved to buy a new car for Staton.
"Dodge Charger for Sheriff Staton—no replacement funds available," Vanderzanden wrote to White on June 24 at 4:35 pm.
As an independently elected official, Staton has leeway over the funds the county commissioners allocate to him—$135 million last year. Although there was no money in the fleet department's budget to replace his car, he could still use other discretionary funds left in his budget to buy his car outside normal procedures.
But on Friday, June 26, at 8:11 am, emails show, Vanderzanden did something unusual—he refused to purchase the car for Staton.
"For reasons that we discussed over the phone regarding the vehicle options on this unit, I respectfully request that if MCSO wants to move forward on this purchase that it be routed through your procurement arm," Vanderzanden wrote June 26, 2015, at 8:11 am to White. "This is one I would prefer fleet not be involved in purchasing."
"I understand why you want us to purchase this vehicle internally," White replied.
So Staton got his car. Vanderzanden, who's worked in fleet for four years, says "there has been no other situation where we've declined to buy a vehicle because of cost of the extra amenities." He adds that there's been no other instance in which a county agency has proceeded with a purchase over the objections of fleet officials.
In response to written questions, Staton says he's done nothing wrong. He claims he never knew Vanderzanden refused to buy the car, and he simply accepted the options the car came with. Staton insists the vehicle was purchased as part of a routine replacement cycle and is necessary for official business. "This vehicle is utilized in parades, public appearances, and at various other MCSO-sponsored events," Staton said in a statement.
Matt Ferguson, president of the deputy sheriff's union, says deputies were puzzled when they saw Staton's new rig. "It was really nice," Ferguson says. "With those big wheels, it didn't look like a police car at all."
He says the vehicle raised some eyebrows because nobody in the command staff drives anything like it and county patrol cars take a beating.
"There were plenty of other things we could have spent that money on," Ferguson says. "I'm not an expert on ethics law, but it certainly seems like he used his position to say, 'Hey, get me this nice car.'"