WIELDING A SEARCH WARRANT, federal agents descended on Ellis McCoy's third-floor apartment last month, hauling files out of the home of the (now resigned) chief of Portland's parking system. The high-profile investigation came six years after employees working under McCoy began complaining that their boss seemed to be taking bribes from a parking company that won a $20 million city contract.
The main whistleblowers, Barbara Krieg, Russ Gilbert, and Carla Hale, say Portland Bureau of Transportation officials' reactions to their complaints were entirely unhelpful. All three no longer work for the city.
The case is just the most recent in Portland involving frustrated city whistleblowers, and raises alarming questions about whether Portland does enough to encourage and protect employees who report wrongdoing.
A 2009 audit found numerous problems in the city's whistleblowing system. The audit, conducted by the office of City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, pointed out a lack of clear guidance on where to report problems, not enough anonymity, and poor reporting training for employees. Griffin-Valade established a 24/7 anonymous hotline that city employees and regular citizens alike can use to report fraud and abuse. However, the hotline hasn't actually led to any uptick in reports of fraud, says Griffin-Valade.
Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said Portland's hotline is "ridiculous" without strong laws to back it up.
"All studies show that 98 percent of the people who witness fraud will not report it to a hotline. You need real mechanisms," says Kohn. Oregon law protects whistleblowing employees from retaliation. But unlike other states, it doesn't reward employees with a cut of any money that offenders have to pay if they're found guilty.
The McCoy case and two others drive home Portland's systemic problem.
"[Then-director of the Portland Transportation Bureau] Susan Keil got to a point where she didn't want to hear any more discussion or dissent," explains Chuck Morrow, former public works supervisor for the bureau of transportation. "If anybody had anything contradictory to say, she would just threaten to fire them if they didn't shut up and do what they were told. That cooled the discussion considerably." Keil did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2010, Police Officer Tom Brennan sued the city after he raised complaints about Sergeant Kyle Nice to then-Precinct Commander Mike Reese. Brennan was promptly transferred from patrol duty to the property evidence warehouse.
"It was basically sending him into Siberia in downtown Portland," says Brennan's lawyer, Kevin Keaney. Brennan's whistleblower complaint alleged that Nice overreacted on a minor case involving two homeless street performers, and a suspicion that Nice was under stress because of his involvement in the James Chasse death-in-custody case. The city settled the case and paid Officer Brennan $40,000.
In 2008, ex-police officer Lindsay Hunt took the city to court, saying her employment was threatened after reporting misconduct by her training officer, Quency Ho ["The Thick Blue Line," News, March 6, 2008]. Hunt resigned in 2007 and her federal lawsuit was unsuccessful, but in July Portland's Citizen Review Committee, a nine-member group established in order to help improve police accountability, acknowledged Hunt was treated unfairly.
So will things change for whistleblowers in Portland thanks to McCoy's case? "I don't think there's a chance in hell anything will change," says Morrow. "The people who are responsible for things being that way will still be there."