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Former Cornelius chief speaks out

Rubenstein, officers paint divided, complicated picture of police agency


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Former Cornelius Police Chief Paul Rubenstein had to wait 10 months before he could publicly defend himself against allegations rasied last October by four Cornelius police officers.In 1999, Paul Rubenstein took a 15 percent pay cut to land the dream job that would eventually threaten his health and ruin his career.

He left a lieutenant position in Federal Way, Wash., to become police chief in Cornelius.

Last October, a 15-page, accusation-filled letter sent to city officials by four of Rubenstein’s own officers painted him as a “corrupt” chief who covered up alleged lies by one of his officers, Dustin DeHaven.

The controversy eventually led Rubenstein, now 59, to retire — not resign, he emphasizes — due to what he describes as a lack of support from city management and the physical effects the controversy was having on his health.

“My character, my reputation and my career were publicly destroyed,” Rubenstein said last week. “At one point here I thought I had a heart attack. I ended up in the hospital overnight.

“The only thing that has kept me going has been the support of my friends and the people who know me.”

Now, after nearly a year of biting his tongue while the Oregon State Police and Multnomah County District Attorney investigated the allegations, Rubenstein is finally free to talk. The investigation results were recently released and concluded that Rubenstein, DeHaven and Lt. Joe Noffsinger were not guilty of the official misconduct alleged in the letter.

Rubenstein forwarded a copy of the report to the News-Times last week.

In it, he offers his own, dramatically different view of the letter writers, painting them as an isolated group who maliciously targeted DeHaven as part of a vendetta against Rubenstein, who was threatening their careers.

The picture that emerges from conversations with other Cornelius police officers is more complex and suggests different people can sincerely hold opposite views of the same situation, particularly when those views are fed by the toxic stew of distrust, personality conflicts, miscommunication and stress that simmered for years in Cornelius’ overwhelmed, financially strapped police department.

Of the nine patrol officers and three administrators on the 12-member force, some say the letter writers simply hated DeHaven, whose father is a longtime friend of Rubenstein’s. One subscribes to Rubenstein’s vendetta theory. Some say the whole blowup might have been avoided if there had been more trust and communication between the two sides.

Other than the letter writers, none of the officers who spoke to the News-Times said Rubenstein acted unethically or illegally.

In fact, current Police Chief Ken Summers said he believes Rubenstein had legitimate concerns about DeHaven being unfairly targeted by the four officers.

But Summers also praises the officers who wrote the letter as “good guys. They did this city a great service coming forward like this. They were legitimate with the information they had. It was very appropriate.”

For Rubenstein, who is just beginning to clear his reputation, the easiest part may be erasing claims of corrupt or even unethical conduct. For someone who has been unjustly accused of everything from covering up lies to consorting with drug dealers to gambling with the city credit card, that’s a big deal.

Criticism of his managerial style may prove harder to rub out — and more central to what went wrong.

Revenge on the mind?

Rubenstein said he believes three of the four letter-writers targeted him (through DeHaven) because he was threatening their careers.

Rubenstein had ordered an investigation into Officer Miguel Monico for falsifying a time slip to receive overtime pay he hadn’t earned. He also ordered an investigation into Officer Mark Jansen, the union president, who Rubenstein claims had been conducting union business during his work hours and on department computers.

Weeks before the officers submitted their explosive letter, Rubenstein said, he received the investigation report on Jansen, who was found to be insubordinate. The 13-page document, dated Sept. 20, 2012, suggests that one consequence of this “serious disciplinary event” could be “skipping regular progressive disciplinary steps and going straight to termination.”

Rubenstein suspects this report sparked the accusation-filled letter. “Once they filed this letter, I couldn’t even discipline them. I was gutted,” he said. “They scared the city into treating them as ‘whistleblowers.’”

Regarding Sgt. Shawn Watts, Rubenstein said he’d heard complaints from supervisors of outside agencies that officers under Watts’s command were using unnecessary force and not calling for medics to help the roughed-up suspects. Rubenstein claims he was considering demoting Watts and said Watts knew it.

The four officers responded to the News-Times’ questions through their lawyer, Dan Thenell, who said Rubenstein’s allegations about Watts “are simply not true.” He also said Monico and Jansen were both cleared of the allegations against them in a separate settlement after Rubenstein left the chief position.

The labor disputes were “totally unrelated to the corruption complaint my clients filed,” he said.

Rubenstein had no suspicions or investigations pending against the fourth letter-writer, Doug Schuetz. But Schuetz was close friends with the other three, he said.

Initially, he suggests, the four targeted DeHaven because of Rubenstein’s friendship with DeHaven’s father.

“I think they just hate me,” said Rubenstein, who appears to see the conflict over DeHaven through that lens.

Officer splitting the department

Rubenstein said nobody else at the department shared this tight-knit group’s alleged concerns and suspicions about DeHaven — a claim largely backed up by interviews with other officers, including one who referred to “the great divide” on the issue: four officers on one side, four on the other and Officer John Calvert in the middle.

DeHaven, a rookie when he joined the department in 2008, apparently showed some arrogance and disrespect early on. But several officers say he has turned around and is now an exemplary colleague. They have no concerns about his honesty.

Rubenstein claims that the four officers’ unfair targeting of DeHaven was so severe and obvious, he began to worry about DeHaven filing a “hostile work environment” lawsuit.

As an example, he notes that Sgt. Watts had ordered DeHaven to field-test all drug samples. This is something no other officers were required to do, he said, because all drug samples must also be lab-tested anyway and because officers can usually recognize drugs such as marijuana without testing.

But while Rubenstein saw malicious targeting, other officers — even those who disagreed with the approach — saw simply a heavy-handed training regimen for a rookie.

The more important question to ask related to the drug-test directive, Thenell said, is “why DeHaven needed to be ordered to do a basic function of police procedure.”

The test-kit order led to a problem in December 2010, when DeHaven told Watts he hadn’t field-tested a certain drug because he didn’t have a field-test kit at the time. Schuetz, who had been on the call with DeHaven, reminded him that he did have a test kit and that Schuetz had even pointed it out to him.

This incident made it into the 15-page letter as an example of DeHaven’s untruthfulness.

Rubenstein said he saw the exchange in a much less ominous way — as a moment of forgetfulness or misunderstanding, something along the lines of “I don’t have one — oh wait, yeah I do.” He said he did not feel comfortable investigating it as if it were a career-ending case of untruthfulness.

Rubenstein did, however, instruct Noffsinger to investigate DeHaven’s failure to follow his superior’s orders. DeHaven was reprimanded for insubordination but not for untruthfulness, which fed the four letter-writers’ suspicions, according to various reports.

Rubenstein already had his own suspicions about the four, fed by previous tension and clashes.

Failure to communicate

The downward spiral hit bottom in a June 2012 non-emergency call assigned to DeHaven, who was sitting in the police station at the time, busy with a report. Radio transcripts show DeHaven told the dispatcher to mark him as “arrived” at the low-priority call — something officers sometimes do when they are on their way and will arrive soon. But DeHaven also told the dispatcher to “clear” the call (as if it had been taken care of) even though he had never left the police station.

Schuetz, who was working on something else in the station in a different room at the time, overheard the radio conversation and realized DeHaven had never actually responded. He later reported the incident. For Schuetz, who claimed he was already concerned about DeHaven’s untruthfulness, this was just one more example.

Rubenstein asked Noffsinger to look into the complaint. Noffsinger pulled radio transcripts and phone logs and interviewed DeHaven. He found that shortly after he asked the dispatcher to mark him “arrived,” DeHaven called the dispatcher over the phone (an exchange Schuetz would not have been able to hear) and explained that he wasn’t actually at the call because he was busy but to go ahead and clear it because he’d get to it eventually. (He never did, however, check out the report.)

Noffsinger said the evidence showed DeHaven hadn’t “maliciously lied” to the dispatcher, and he wanted to share those details with Schuetz. But Rubenstein resisted.

Rubenstein claims his refusal to communicate on certain issues was based on a combination of distrust and union regulations. He says he followed “legal counsel” on communicating with union members.

But Noffsinger doesn’t think union regulations were as big a deal as Rubenstein made them out to be. He blames his former chief’s secretiveness more on “serious distrust.”

As Rubenstein told the OSP investigator, he was concerned that Schuetz was “slinking around behind” DeHaven in an attempt to “set him up.” Rubenstein didn’t trust that Schuetz would honestly accept the investigation results.

So instead, four months later, the incident appeared in the 15-page letter as one of the most damning pieces of “evidence” for DeHaven’s untruthfulness.

“It’s my belief that this was an utter breakdown of communication,” said Noffsinger, who believes the letter might never have been written if his investigation had been shared with the accusers.

Filling in the blanks

Summers, who has spent hours talking with the four officers who submitted the explosive letter, blames their blowup on lack of feedback from Rubenstein. “They would make these allegations and he never got back and gave them reason to believe that they could trust him to look into these concerns.”

When there were information gaps, the officers were left to fill in the blanks with their negative assumptions, Noffsinger said.

“They jumped to conclusions,” Summers agreed. “They were just so frustrated.”

If that’s the case, the frustration proved shattering for Rubenstein — and only deepened his conviction that the officers were out to get him.

In addition to various charges of “hiding” and “covering up” DeHaven’s alleged misconduct, the officers raised other, disconnected accusations in the letter, which indicated to Rubenstein that they were simply trying to tar him with anything that might stick, including a suggestion by Schuetz that Rubenstein had a “gambling problem.”

Rubenstein, who claims to be a tournament-level blackjack player, said he hasn’t visited casinos more than a dozen times in the past six years. The charge of gambling with a city credit card proved unfounded.

So did the allegation, made in the letter, of Rubenstein’s “possible criminal conduct” for visiting the home of “a woman who is known to have drug users there regularly and is or has been suspected of selling drugs.” That, said Rubenstein, was a visit (with a group) to play Wii games at the home of someone he knew from Prime Time Sports Bar & Restaurant — a legal medical-marijuana user.

A number of other, smaller complaints all proved unfounded.

It seems clear that Rubenstein got what he needed out of the investigation to clear his name: None of the information gathered proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that any laws related to the three accused public servants’ positions were violated, or that they intended to obtain benefit for themselves or cause harm to others.

But the end of the investigation doesn’t erase the ramifications of the four officers’ complaints. Numerous lawsuits related to the 15-page letter and its publication are still working their way through the legal system, with additional lawsuits likely to be filed soon — this time by Rubenstein.

Political chaos magnifies police stress

When Paul Rubenstein became police chief of Cornelius in 1999, 13 sworn officers and 2.5 civilian employees served and protected 8,500 citizens. By June 2011, the city’s population had grown to about 12,000, but the number of officers had not changed and the number of civilian positions had shrunk.

Then one faction of a divided city council, led by former Mayor Neal Knight, fired the city manager — and drafted Rubenstein to take his place.

“That was when my hair went gray,” said Rubenstein, who suddenly found himself dealing with land use, library budgets, a dysfunctional city council and nearly $600,000 of unexpected bills -- some of which he paid with money snatched from the police budget.

“The city’s going to hell in a handbasket,” Rubenstein said of that time, a period when he was still doubling as police chief, supervising Acting Chief Joe Noffsinger, an administrative newbie struggling with tense internal investigations and union conflicts. 

With Rubenstein mostly gone, the thin police staff was stretched even thinner, creating more stress,which led to more union complaints that demanded more time and money, which led to more stress, and so on.

Rubenstein said that at some point he began talking to Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett about the possibility that he might need to take over the Cornelius Police Department.

Without some drastic change, Rubenstein said,“It was clear that we weren’t going to make it.”

The former chief believes the past 10 months of explosive accusations, lawsuits and investigations are indirectly linked to that eight-month period of political turmoil which included the recall of Knight and his two council allies in September 2011 .

"This," he said, "is a symptom of ‘not going to make it.'”




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