EUGENE, Ore. (CN) — In a lawsuit against former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, his communications director claims he fired her after she sought legal advice about being told to work on his re-election campaign rather than state business.
In a federal lawsuit, Nkenge Harmon Johnson also claims that a state Justice Department investigator spied on her husband’s Twitter account for Black Lives Matter-related content in a “threat assessment,” to retaliate for her complaints.
Kitzhaber resigned in February 2015 amid controversy that he and his fiancée Cylvia Hayes used the power of his office to help clients of Hayes’ private consulting firm.
Kitzhaber and Hayes have denied the allegations, which are the subject of a federal investigation.
Harmon Johnson sued both of them on July 15, along with Kitzhaber’s former chief of staff Mike Bonetto and Justice Department investigator James Williams.
Harmon Johnson, who now heads Portland’s Urban League, says she saw “myriad improprieties involving the governor’s re-election campaign team and his official staff” while working for Kitzhaber as his spokesperson.
Harmon Johnson says she saw Kitzhaber and his staff “directing or permitting of political activities by public employees while on the job, in violation of ORS 260.432, as well as mismanagement and abuse of authority.”
Oregon Revised Statute 260.432 covers “Restrictions on Political Campaigning for Public Employees.”
Harmon Johnson says Kitzhaber and Bonetto ordered her to manage events and communications for Hayes that related to Kitzhaber’s re-election campaign, as well as Hayes’ personal interests.
“Defendant Hayes took umbrage at something plaintiff said at an executive staff meeting, on or about July 15, 2014, and began to instigate plaintiff’s termination by making disparaging comments about plaintiff to defendants Bonetto and Kitzhaber, and others,” the complaint states.
Harmon Johnson says her concerns about the legal issues were shrugged off, and she sought advice from Kitzhaber’s deputy legal counsel Steve Powers. She says Bonetto asked her to resign after she consulted with Powers, and he fired her when she refused.
Bonetto said Harmon Johnson was fired for “performance issues.”
In 2014, Harmon Johnson wrote an opinion piece for The Oregonian newspaper criticizing the governor.
“I know that Oregonians deserve transparency: The lines between public, private and campaign business are clear,” she wrote.
“Emails related to state business must be sent on official state accounts. Campaign polling should not determine office activities.”
Nearly a year later, Department of Justice investigator Williams used a program called Digital Stakeout to search the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter” in the Salem area.
He found the Twitter account of Harmon Johnson’s husband Erious Johnson, who is civil rights director for the Oregon Department of Justice.
“Upon recognition that Erious Johnson was Harmon Johnson’s husband, defendant Williams contacted his superiors, indicating that he had concerns about some of Johnson’s Twitter postings on his political and social views,” the complaint states.
It continues: “Defendant Williams then drafted a memo about Johnson entitled ‘Possible threats towards law enforcement by ODOJ employee’ and circulated it to high-level DOJ personnel. Based on information and belief, a substantial factor in the targeting of Erious Johnson for a ‘threat assessment’ was the knowledge that his wife was seeking to take legal action against the governor’s office.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum apologized to Erious Johnson for the spying in November 2015, but Harmon Johnson and civil rights groups demanded a criminal investigation.
Harmon Johnson seeks lost wages and punitive damages for constitutional violations and intentional interference with economic relations. She is represented by Beth Creighton with Creighton & Rose, in Portland.
On July 13, a Ninth Circuit panel quashed a subpoena seeking Kitzhaber’s emails, finding it overly broad.
The subpoena was “not even minimally tailored to the government’s investigatory goals” and as such was “unreasonable and invalid,” Judge Marsh Berzon wrote for the panel.
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