On Nov. 16, a judge ruled Linda Yankee, a former chief deputy to onetime Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton, must answer questions in a whistleblower lawsuit.
"Settlement agreements shouldn't be able to buy employees' silence," Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Bottomly said in a ruling from the bench. "I will order Ms. Yankee to be deposed."
That ruling is the latest fallout from an audit that imploded Staton's career.
Three years ago, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office staff prepared a controversial audit of corrections deputies' use of force in county jails.
The key finding in the document pulled together by sheriff's staff in August 2015: Black inmates made up 27 percent of the jails' population but were the subject of 40 percent of the incidents in which deputies used force on inmates.
But according to the staffers responsible for the inflammatory findings, then-Sheriff Staton buried the document.
Lt. Brent Ritchie, Staton's personal assistant at the time, alleges that after he briefed his boss on the racial disparities at the jails, he was demoted, stripped of his duties and sent to the sheriff's office's version of Siberia.
Staton's alleged response to the audit set off a series of dominolike reactions that would result in the resignation or retirement of nearly his entire command staff and Staton's own resignation under pressure in August 2016 ("Staton Announces Retirement," WW, May 27, 2016).
But what began as the alleged cover-up of potential civil rights abuses has now become a First Amendment issue, as Multnomah County sought to block the testimony of one of Staton's former top aides.
"What the county is trying to do is called 'prior restraint,'" says Ritchie's attorney, Sean Riddell. "The Constitution doesn't allow that."
The underlying issue in the dispute over whether Yankee should be allowed to testify is transparency. If public employers were allowed to gag whistleblowers like Yankee simply by paying them to shut up, it would eliminate a vital source of information about the inner workings of local and state government.
In effect, the county sought to block a former senior employee from providing information about how Staton managed a key public safety agency, which has an annual budget of $152 million and 815 employees.
Andrew Altschul, a Portland lawyer who regularly represents public employees, says he's surprised the county would try to prevent Yankee from answering factual questions about her employment. He says such a legal strategy is highly unusual for a taxpayer-funded employer.
"It's shocking, frankly," Altschul says.
In his case, Ritchie is seeking compensation from the county for what he claims was Staton's retaliation against him.
As part of that case, Riddell has sought to depose Yankee, who worked closely with Staton on budget and personnel matters.
"Yankee's testimony and knowledge of Mr. Staton's managerial behaviors and executive decisions is directly relevant to Mr. Ritchie's matter," Riddell argued in an Oct. 18 motion.
But the Multnomah County Attorney's Office opposed Riddell's request. The county cited a provision in a settlement agreement that sought to prevent Yankee from talking about the sheriff's office as a condition of receiving about $188,000 from a tort claim that alleged Staton "ostracized" and demoted Yankee for her gender and use of medical leave.
When she accepted the money, Yankee agreed that anything that happened prior to the February 2016 settlement "will not be offered by Yankee or be admissible in any subsequent civil lawsuit, administrative hearing or other civil legal proceeding."
The county said if Yankee were to testify in the Ritchie case, she would be breaching that settlement and would "open up the claim of rescission and potentially for needless further litigation."
The county was in a tricky position from the outset of Ritchie's case. As information about Staton's management emerged in 2016, County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury requested first an Oregon Department of Justice investigation into the sheriff's actions and, when that inquiry concluded with no charges, ordered a human resources investigation of Staton. Both added to the pressure that ultimately led to his resignation.
But in court last week, senior assistant county attorney David Landrum argued Yankee had signed away her right to testify about Staton and, even if she hadn't, had nothing useful to say. (Staton's personal attorney, meanwhile, did not appear in court or respond to a request for comment.)
"The information she has is irrelevant," Landrum told the court.
Riddell disagreed. "[The county's] interpretation is that the people can never hear what Ms. Yankee has to say about Mr. Staton," he said. "That's unconstitutional."
Judge Bottomly agreed with Riddell and ordered Yankee to show up for deposition.