Revelations of Oregon Department of Justice agents monitoring social media activity by the agency’s head civil rights attorney Erious Johnson Jr. for using a Black Lives Matter hashtag garnered international headlines in late 2015.
The incident triggered an outside investigation of the department in which agents were found to have likely violated laws barring the collection of political speech. The scandal also prompted edicts for mandatory anti-discrimination and bias training for department employees.
Yet, two years later, Johnson, one of the only black employees at Department of Justice, also is the only employee who ultimately was forced out of the agency in the wake of the scandal.
Two of the three white co-workers accused of profiling him still work at the justice department. A third left the agency voluntarily to take another job.
Johnson filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Justice last year for violation of his civil rights. State officials agreed earlier this month to pay Johnson $205,000 to settle the case on the condition that he leave the department. He resigned the position effective Friday and is prohibited from working for the state for at least five years.
“I just think it’s per se retaliation,” said Beth Creighton, a civil rights lawyer who represented Johnson. “First, the state violates his rights, and then they require him to consent to continuing to violate his rights, i.e., that he won’t work for the state in order to be compensated for the violation he suffered originally.”
Matt Shelby, spokesman for the state Department of Administrative Services, which handled the settlement, denied that the requirement to resign was retaliation for Johnson suing the state.
“When (the) DAS Risk (Department) gets involved in settlement discussions, the focus is on making the best business decision for the state, not punishing anybody,” Shelby wrote in an email to the EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group Capital Bureau.
Government officials have increasingly used forced resignations in settlements to discourage their employees from suing state agencies, Creighton said.
“My experience with the state of Oregon is that they do not take kindly to people who assert their rights even if they are correct in doing so,” she said.
Shelby said he was not permitted to discuss specifics of Johnson’s case. However, generally, state negotiators “consider how any settlement will impact the state in the future — both in terms of individuals filing claims against us, and our ability to negotiate them.”
“A settlement agreement represents our best effort to settle the claim before us, while mitigating the risk of future liability,” Shelby said.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum did not ask for Johnson’s resignation, said Department of Justice spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson.
The surveillance of Johnson’s and other Black Lives Matter supporters’ social media activities wasn’t revealed to the public until Johnson’s wife, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the president of the Urban League of Portland, released a letter in November 2015.
Agent James Williams, the investigator who tracked Johnson’s activities, expressed concerns about a tweet in which Johnson posted a logo and lyrics from hip-hop group Public Enemy. The logo depicts an African American in the crosshairs of a firearm. Williams mistook the logo as an image showing a police officer in the crosshairs and thought Johnson might be a threat to law enforcement.
He shared his concerns with his supervisor, Special Agent in Charge David Kirby. Kirby consulted Darin Tweedt, director of the Criminal Justice Division, who recommended Williams conduct a threat assessment of Johnson and write a report.
Rosenblum fired Williams last year for racially profiling Johnson. Williams sued, and a state arbitrator ruled in August that Williams should be reinstated to his job.
Meanwhile, Kirby voluntarily left his post in May 2016 to accept a position as operations integrity director at Privateer Holdings in Seattle.
Tweedt was demoted from his director’s position to a senior assistant attorney general in the department’s civil recovery section. As a result, his monthly salary decreased from $14,523 to $11,346, according to the state.
Johnson had planned to stay on with the justice department indefinitely before the terms of the settlement were reached, Creighton said. He is now looking for another job.
Johnson played a prominent role in an attorney general’s task force that recommended anti-profiling legislation, which lawmakers approved earlier this year. The new law requires police officers to collect data on race and other demographic information during law enforcement stops. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission is responsible for analyzing the data to identify any trends showing officers have targeted certain groups of people such as people of color. The law also included provisions for improving training for law enforcement officers.
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.