Investigation of Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith Finds She Likely Demeaned Women of Color Who Worked for Her

Witnesses allege Smith made racially charged remarks about Muslims and Latinos. Smith claims the results vindicate her.

Multnomah County today released the results of an investigation into the conduct of Commissioner Loretta Smith.

The 14-page investigative report prepared by Clarence Belnavis, a partner in the Fisher & Phillips law firm, followed on allegations against Smith by two former staffers, MeeSeon Kwan and Saba Saleem.

The county today released the June 8 report in response to a public records request.

The report, for which the county paid $11,353, drew on interviews with 11 people, including Smith. She was adamant that she'd done nothing wrong.

"Commissioner Smith made it clear that she does not believe that she ever engaged in inappropriate behavior," the report says.

Belnavis separated the complaints into four categories: misuse of county funds; misuse of staff time; unprofessional conduct toward staff; and discriminatory or harassing conduct.

It is the fourth area in which there is the most new information.

"Several of the allegations raised against Commissioner Smith concern conduct that is potentially discriminatory or harassing in that it is tied to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or some other legally protected status," the report says.

Witnesses cited in the report say Smith repeatedly demeaned the women who worked for her, often by using racially and sexually-charged language.

One witness said Smith said, "You Latinos don't have any power anyway," to "an employee Commissioner Smith assumed could be a Latina."

Another witness said she made "general references to Muslims being terrorists and referencing Hispanics as 'illegals.'"

One witness said that Smith said to a female employee, "Suck your stomach in. You look pregnant. You better not be pregnant." And to another, "You can do something about your weight."

Belnavis noted that the allegations were difficult to substantiate because they were allegedly said in one-on-one meetings.

"That said," he wrote, "there does appear to be a pattern that indicates that Commissioner Smith likely shared her personal, cultural or ethnic views with her staff in what she likely believed were personal conversations. To the extent that this happened, such conduct was inappropriate given that these conversations occurred in the workplace."

Belnavis found that Smith was generally a difficult boss.

One county staff member quoted by name in the report, Karin Lamberton, an HR manager, "noted that Commissioner Smith had the highest staff turnover and had a reputation for yelling at her staff."

As he did throughout his report, Belnavis noted that many of the incidents described by witnesses could not be independently verified because they took place one-on-one between Smith and a staff member.

"That said," Belnavis wrote, "the allegations appear consistent and indicate that Commissioner Smith may have been harsher in her treatment of female staffers, using derogatory statements and profanity in these interactions."

"It appears that Commissioner Smith created and fostered an environment in which she felt comfortable making demeaning or negative statements to and/or about female staffers in relation to their person and work," the report continues. "Her conduct violates the county's requirement that all employees must maintain a professional and respectful environment."

In terms of misuse of county funds and staff time, areas which have been the subject of previous WW stories, Belnavis noted some troubling behavior.

For instance, Smith used her county purchasing card in violation of county policy 14 times, spending about $2,300 on personal expenditures. She was forced to pay that money back. But on four occasions, her former chief of staff, Jimmy Brown, repaid the money.

Smith also proved a haphazard bookkeeper.

"In the fiscal year 2017 (through March), Commissioner Smith submitted documentation claiming that she lost 27 out of a total of 47 receipts," the report says.

Witnesses said that Smith forced them to use personal or vacation time to staff political events, in violation of a county rule. "Commissioner Smith likely violated this rule because neither she nor her chiefs of staff were clear in their communications [to staff]," the report says.

County Human Resources Director Travis Graves, who ordered the investigation, wrote a response to Belnavis' report. "Based on the investigator's findings, I recommend that Commissioner Smith review and seek training on the county code, personnel rules and administrative procedures," Graves wrote.

Graves added that questions about potential campaign finance violations were outside the scope of the county probe. "I understand that the Secretary of State is investigating possible violations," Graves wrote.

WW previously reported on letters the women wrote detailing their concerns about Smith. After those stories, Smith requested that county investigate the women’s claims. She subsequently changed her mind, filing a tort claim notice in an effort to block the release of the county’s investigation.

That attempt proved unsuccessful.

Smith told Belnavis that "she believes there is a stigma against her based on her background," the report says, "and that [she] has very high standards for her staff that they do not always understand or appreciate."

And in a statement Friday afternoon, Smith claimed that the report vindicated her.

"Today, after six long months, the county released a report—at great expense to the public—that found that wild claims filed against me were unsubstantiated," Smith said. "While I intend to provide a written response to Mr. Graves' letter regarding my concerns with how the entire matter was handled, including the motivations behind it, I am glad these allegations have been put to rest."

Smith added that she's been hard at work arranging paid summer internships for 150 youth, hosting a national conference on governance and that she recently also hosted the Rev. Jesse Jackson as part of a healing process after the MAX stabbings.

"The public should never doubt that I let this misguided process distract me from doing the business of representing the most vulnerable in Multnomah County," Smith said.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury issued a brief statement in response to the report.

"Multnomah County has a duty to employees to address workplace complaints," Kafoury said. "I am pleased the county's process has been followed, an investigation has been conducted and we can move forward."

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