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Gender discrimination claims surface against Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson

Three women who say they endured gender discrimination while working at the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office aren’t suing. They issued statements together Monday, about a week before Sheriff Shane Nelson faces reelection.

Their stories span years, sharing themes of alleged retaliation and promotion discrimination. Some of the former employees' descriptions echo pending legal complaints two other women have filed against the county since Nelson became sheriff in 2015.

Those with new accusations aren’t seeking legal damages. They were presented by Bend city councilors, a pastor and a rabbi at a press conference near Drake Park on Monday morning. Citing fears of retaliation, the public figures read prepared statements from former sheriff’s office employees, two of which focused on Nelson’s personal role in the department’s culture, claiming it excludes women from promotions and leadership roles.

Rabbi Johanna Hershenson read the statement of Julie Lovrien, who was at the sheriff’s office for nine years before leaving her job as a legal assistant in 2018.

Lovrien said she worked on some of the legal complaints being brought against Nelson for alleged employment practices. According to her statement, the sheriff eventually blocked her from getting a title change and pay raise when her duties changed. After she successfully appealed to the county’s human resources department: “I was no longer invited to confidential meetings that were essential to my duties as a legal assistant ... I was directed to no longer speak directly with the sheriff and to only use the chain of command when I needed to present legal issues that required his attention.”

Former patrol deputy Julie Sloop said when she worked at the department in 2007, and Nelson was still a lieutenant. “It was evident that the leadership and many of my coworkers did not want females on patrol. I experienced my coworkers purposely putting me in harmful situations," Sloop said.

Sloop told OPB she didn’t file any complaints at the time because she “didn’t think that it would matter,” and that she’s speaking up now because judging by the number of complaints “this has morphed into something even worse.”

Denise Senner was an administrative analyst at the jail when she left in 2017, who said she “was told multiple times by different sources that I needed to watch what I said, or be careful who I express my thoughts to if I valued my job." Senner’s statement was read by Bend City Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell.

“Women have suffered in silence for years and they see someone who is up for reelection, I think it’s a really courageous time for them to stand up and say, there’s something the public needs to know about this person," Goodman-Campbell told OPB.

“As elected officials, we do not and will not accept discrimination within our city agencies, our county offices, our schools, or in the sheriff’s department,” Bend Mayor Sally Russell said.

Neither have any supervisory authority over the sheriff. The purse strings for his office fall to the county commission, three members of which did not reply to a request for comment Monday.

Of 262 employees, just three women hold supervisory roles at the sheriff’s office. About 75% of the department’s employees are men, according to figures provided by Sgt. Jayson Janes.

“Sheriff Nelson has followed a stance of holding employees, regardless of gender, accountable for their conduct. Not everyone likes to be held accountable for his or her actions,” Janes said in a statement.

The event and a website called Deschutes Women Speak Out, were organized by the head of a political consulting firm hired by Nelson’s political opponent in November’s election, Bend Police officer Scott Schaier. We Win Strategy Group CEO Caroline Fitchett insisted the newly lodged complaints aren’t about politics.

“It’s not about the election. It’s really about women being treated equally,” Fitchett said.

In a written statement, Nelson brushed off the idea that there’s a pattern of gender discrimination in his office.

“The timing is interesting, as this announcement appears to be election and debate related. I find this not to be coincidental,” Nelson wrote. “People not in line with the Sheriff’s Office mission and values will not work here, that is not what our taxpayers deserve.”

Lovrien, the former legal assistant, said she got in touch with Schaier after seeing the candidates debate on TV.

“It made me really mad. [Nelson] was dancing a fine line between misrepresenting facts and lying. It reminded me of what it was like to work for him. I had to turn off the TV,” she told OPB. “I saw how [Nelson] dragged people through the ringer even after they worked there, especially because I worked for legal counsel.”

Lovrien said she’s not suing, nor seeking damages, and what she wants is for whoever is sheriff to “acknowledge there’s a problem” in how the agency treats its female employees.

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson speaks at a press conference Dec. 7, 2018.
Emily Cureton /
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson speaks at a press conference Dec. 7, 2018.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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