The Oregon Department of Justice on Nov. 20 released the results of an independent investigation into allegations of misconduct against two top attorneys for the state—mostly clearing them of wrongdoing.
In September, WW first reported on allegations against Steve Lippold, the DOJ's chief trial counsel, and Marc Abrams, the assistant attorney in charge of employment litigation for the state. The allegations arose from a tort claim notice filed in June by Heather Van Meter, a former senior assistant attorney general at the DOJ.
Van Meter accused Abrams of kissing her on two separate occasions without her consent and said he did so while knowing he had the power to get her fired. She also said Lippold quashed her chances of getting hired for a new DOJ position and that he later told her over the phone that the position would have been a lot to handle because of her child care responsibilities.
Those allegations prompted the outside investigation, which was completed Oct. 30.
The report on the investigation conducted by lawyer Lori Watson is 83 pages long and contains statements from more than two dozen witnesses. Watson concluded that a preponderance of evidence does not support any of Van Meter's claims against Abrams. She dismissed most, but not all, of Van Meter's claims against Lippold.
"The investigation confirmed that I treat everyone the same regardless of gender and that my decisions are not based upon the gender of the person in front of me," Lippold wrote in a statement to WW. "I am disappointed and frustrated, however, that after finding Ms. Van Meter to lack credibility at every turn, that the investigator accepted her version of one meeting that occurred between Ms. Van Meter and me alone, one that I handled in a calm and professional manner."
"I am pleased that the investigator came to the correct conclusion regarding the false allegations against me," Abrams told WW. "I am looking forward to getting on with my life and my work for the Oregon Department of Justice."
Van Meter resigned from her position at the DOJ in October. Her attorney, Sean Riddell, says his client is currently "evaluating all of her legal options."
Here are three takeaways from the report:
1. Abrams was cleared of all allegations, but he doesn't deny he kissed Van Meter.
Van Meter alleged in her tort claim notice that Abrams kissed her without her consent on two occasions: once at an event for Oregon lawyers in October 2017 and again at Van Meter's Lake Oswego home in October 2019.
Abrams denies the latter kiss, but says the first one occurred. He told the investigator that, at the time, he and Van Meter had been discussing exploring a romantic relationship together and that she had told him at that time that she thought her boyfriend was going to "dump" her. He also alleges that, on the night of the event, Van Meter told him she was wearing a certain dress that night "for him."
"Abrams went on to say that he knows when a woman doesn't want him to kiss them, and that his kiss was not unwelcome," the investigator wrote.
Van Meter says the kiss was unwelcome, telling the investigator that "I have never had any interest in a relationship with him."
2. The investigator determined Lippold violated three provisions of the state's workplace discrimination policy: workplace harassment, meeting a higher standard, and retaliation.
Watson cleared Lippold of five of six of Van Meter's claims—including that he ignored input from women attorneys during meetings, almost exclusively hired male attorneys, and that he passed Van Meter up for a new position and discouraged other section leaders from assigning her court trials because of her child care responsibilities.
But the investigator found that a preponderance of the evidence supported Van Meter's claim that Lippold berated Van Meter in her office in August 2017, "angry and red-faced," because he learned that she had filed a human resources complaint against him a few days earlier.
Lippold denied the allegation, telling the investigator that "he doesn't raise his voice, in the office, ever."
But another DOJ lawyer, Dirk Pierson, told the investigator he witnessed Lippold walking away from Van Meter's office more tense than usual that day and that he then walked into Van Meter's office and saw "she was pretty shaken." Pierson said Van Meter told him what had happened and he suggested she report the incident to human resources.
As a result of the investigator's finding that a preponderance of evidence supported Van Meter's claim, Deputy Attorney General Fred Boss issued a reprimand to Lippold on Nov.16: He must pair up with an "executive coach who will partner with you to conduct an assessment and develop a plan for improvement and professional growth."
Lippold says he has asked Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to reconsider her decision to issue the letter of reprimand. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the co-owner of WW's parent company.)
3. A former human resources employee failed to investigate claims Van Meter made about Lippold in 2017.
The day after Lippold is said to have yelled at Van Meter in her office, the report says, Van Meter emailed a now-former human resources generalist, Leslie Anderson, upset that Anderson didn't give her notice before she alerted Lippold to her complaint.
The investigator determined that the email to Anderson indicated an "allegation of retaliation" by Lippold, which should have triggered an investigation. "However," it says, "the evidence gathered in this investigation does not indicate that such an investigation ever occurred."
The report determined that, by not starting an investigation, the DOJ's human resources department failed to follow the state's workplace discrimination policy.
"I did not work in a vacuum," Anderson says. "Agency leadership and my upline management were all fully aware of all work I was performing and the status of all my cases during the time of my employment, including this one."
The HR department, meanwhile, is reeling from its own troubles. In August, as WW first reported, the department's director, Bob Koreski, resigned after an independent investigation determined he'd had an affair with a subordinate.