Records Show Allegations of Bullying From City Attorney’s Office Led to Sam Adams’ Ousting

City Attorney Robert Taylor wrote in December that Adams “took frustration out on two of the professional attorneys on my staff.” Everything after that happened quickly.

Sam Adams. (Abby Gordon)

Mayor Ted Wheeler alleged Friday afternoon that former aide Sam Adams, who resigned from the mayor’s office Tuesday citing health concerns and nothing else, engaged in a pattern of bullying behavior toward female City Hall employees—and that Wheeler had demanded his resignation after learning of “several” complaints filed by female employees.

Adams denies Wheeler ever asked for his resignation and says instead that he offered to resign due to increasing fatigue. He called Wheeler’s allegations “a knife in the back” and said he would “like to see the complaints the mayor is referencing.”

WW received heavily redacted copies of the complaints from the city Friday afternoon. The packet includes complaints about Adams from at least seven employees over a 16-month period. What the complaints allege is that Adams treated employees in several city offices rudely since returning to public life—but that he only suffered consequences after allegedly demeaning two deputy city attorneys last month.

The documents provided to WW also indicate that the mayor’s office informed Adams he was being fired—something Adams denied as recently as this morning.

The city’s response to the allegations of bullying, which date back to August 2021, appears to have moved rapidly in the days following an email from City Attorney Robert Taylor to Adams that details a hostile interaction between him and two female deputy city attorneys.

“I understand you were frustrated today with my office, and you took that frustration out on two of the professional attorneys on my staff. They are among the hardest working and most professional lawyers in my office,” Taylor wrote to Adams. “They described the interactions to me, and I want to express to you that how you handled it was not acceptable. They do not want an apology from you. They just do not want it to happen again. I share that expectation.”

One of the two unnamed attorneys had written to Taylor the day before, recounting two meetings with Adams that she considered “unprofessional in a way that I have not previously experienced either at the city or in other workplaces.”

The attorney described Adams as visibly angry for a lengthy period at a morning meeting to discuss city legal strategy that he felt insufficiently consulted on. The attorney says the interaction left her in tears. In a second meeting, the email’s author says, Adams was calm but condescending, giving her his instructions and adding: “I want you to say it back to me so that I know that you understand what I’m saying.” The complaint is redacted too heavily to surmise what specifically was at issue, but it appeared to involve a lawsuit in which the city was a defendant.

On Jan. 4, Ron Zito, director of employee and labor relations for the city, wrote to chief human resources officer Cathy Bless: “Given the at-will nature of Sam’s role and the outsized impact of his position—this trend does create significant liability for the city; it is not quite comparable to other situations with line staff.”

On Jan. 5, Bless suggested to the mayor’s chief of staff, Bobby Lee, how he might demand Adams’ resignation.

“Sam, the conversation we are going to have may feel abrupt and unexpected. As you are aware, you are in a position that serves at the pleasure of the mayor and he has opted to terminate your employment today. While it is understandable this is a lot to take in, I want to provide you a moment to do so,” Bless suggested. “There will be a press release issued later today. I want to provide you the opportunity for input as to how this action is communicated publicly.”

The complaints against Adams go as far back as August 2021.

That month, Michael Montoya, interim director of the Office of Community & Civic Life, emailed the mayor’s chief of staff about an interaction one of his female employees had with Adams. Montoya wrote that the woman had told him she felt “cornered” and “belittled.” Montoya wrote that remarks Adams made “constitute threats to her possible professional future.”

Bless, the HR officer, wrote to Zito on Sept. 21 about one woman’s account of a meeting with Adams, which the woman left crying. Bless wrote that another woman told her: “Women are leaving the mayor’s office because of Sam and are afraid to say anything.”

Zito wrote to Bless in response that “a next step may be for you and I to have a conversation with the mayor about a theme of failed interactions female staff are having with Sam.”

Zito summarized a conversation with one complainant, who said her interaction with Adams felt “mildly traumatizing” and “felt like she may be fired.” The complainant said Adams repeatedly yelled at her and that “these interactions happen with females, [and that she] doesn’t see him treating males the same way.”

A Sept. 3, 2021, complainant wrote that she left a meeting with Adams in tears. She said he had been dismissive and that he interrupted her several times. “I called [the Bureau of Human Resources] director to express my concern and observations that Sam treats men differently than he treats women.”

She added: “Earlier in the year, I was witness to the same accosting behavior by Sam directed towards my employee, a female, where he was dismissive of her and what she was saying. She left the meeting early and upset, and Sam[’s] colleagues from the mayor’s office called her and apologized on his behalf.”

In another incident, on Oct. 6, 2021, logged by Zito, a female employee said she left because of “the way [Adams] treated her,” and that he was “dismissive and disrespectful to women.”

In response to the complaints, Adams told WW: “In all my years working for the city I have never witnessed a City Director of Human Resources and a City Attorney speaking at an official City news conference offering sweeping statements about HR complaints that apparently did not meet the threshold to even be officially investigated. And, while doing so, seemly purposely omitting the fact that the one complaint regarding me over the past two years that actually met the HR complaint threshold requiring an investigation, was ruled in my favor.”

(Adams is referring to a complaint filed against him by former City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty on Dec. 8, 2021. She alleges Adams and former staffer Tom Miller went over her head to talk to her staff about the Major League Soccer event at Providence Park, and that such end-arounds had become a pattern.)

Bless tells WW in a statement that Adams was contacted about his behavior by her office “on at least two occasions during his most recent employment.”

On a call with WW and The Oregonian on Friday afternoon to address Adams’ departure, Wheeler said Adams “did not tell you the whole story, and I’m compelled to tell you what actually happened.”

Wheeler said the director of human resources two weeks ago had presented him with a number of complaints filed by female employees regarding Adams’ behavior: “The complaints centered on bullying and intimidation of a number of employees, all female employees...he had an opportunity to own it, and he didn’t.”

Wheeler said he demanded Adams’ resignation on Tuesday, the same day Adams sent out an email to his staff citing worsening anemia and crippling fatigue as the reasons for his departure. Adams, on a call with WW on Friday morning, maintained that his resignation was due solely to health issues.

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