A dispute between Douglas County Chief Financial Officer Jessica Hansen and Douglas County Assessor Roger Hartman that mushroomed into a lawsuit involving nine people continues to create rifts between those who’ve been sucked into the case’s orbit.
The suit has divided the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. Gary Leif’s a defendant on Hartman’s side of the case, while Chris Boice and Tim Freeman are named defendants in a counter suit filed by Hartman’s friend and co-defendant Larry Saccato.
Saccato, one of four named defendants in the $4.5 million lawsuit brought by Hansen, is attempting to convince the court that it should strike Hansen’s suit against him, while pursuing a $2.5 million counterclaim against five county officials.
It also seems that a rift has formed between Saccato and so-called “private attorney general” Paul Mitchell, who is mentioned prominently in the Hansen case, and who has threatened, but not yet filed, a separate $42 million lawsuit against the county.
Hansen vs. Hartman:
It all began with two county department heads who court documents show were like oil and water from the start. Tension between Chief Financial Officer Jessica Hansen and Douglas County Assessor Roger Hartman began soon after Hartman took office in 2015. Hartman viewed Hansen as controlling and bureaucratic. Hansen said Hartman referred to her by demeaning names for a woman — “bitch,” and worse.
They clashed early on over Hansen’s decision to build a wall to bar Hartman’s staff and friends from accessing tax records on Fridays, when her office was closed.
Hansen reported Hartman to the Department of Justice for alleged ethics violations, including allegations that he had lowered property assessments for his friends. She expressed concern about his competence to the county commissioners and the Department of Revenue. And she reported him to the commissioners for what she said was gender-based harassment. Hansen referred to all of these complaints as whistle-blowing, and she alleged Hartman and a group of his friends retaliated against her for them, and that the name-calling continued.
“These defendants have referred to me in ways which a woman in the workforce should never have to endure,” she wrote in court documents.
Hartman denied using gender-based insults against Hansen or giving his friends special favors. He said the conflict had more to do with his efforts to reduce property assessments and taxes, which he said made him unpopular with other county officials. Hartman also claimed that under the previous assessor, the county had overcharged 6,000 taxpayers to the tune of $14 million.
In August, Hansen filed a $4.5 million lawsuit in Douglas County Circuit Court against Hartman, his coworker Frank Lassen, his friend Saccato, and Leif, alleging they all worked together to retaliate against her. The alleged retaliation included public information requests by Saccato, through which he gathered ammunition for a claim that Hansen had committed mail fraud by sending out tax statements before she had a tax collector’s bond.
On Oct. 3, Saccato filed a counter suit for $2.5 million against Hansen, as well as a motion to strike the lawsuit. Saccato named the other two commissioners, Boice and Freeman, as defendants, along with the county government generally and its Human Resources Director Michael Kurtz and former I-T Director Kevin Potter.
Saccato said it’s his right to file public information requests, and he does it because he wants the county government to do things right. He said he wasn’t harassing Hansen, and that neither Hartman nor anyone else asked him to file the requests.
Freeman, Boice, Potter and Kurtz filed a motion to dismiss Saccato’s counter suit Oct. 27. They said his complaint doesn’t state any “justiciable controversy.” Instead, they wrote, it “contains little more than a list of alleged things that happened which Saccato does not like.”
Portland attorney Jill Goldsmith, hired by the county to investigate Hansen’s claims, corroborated her version of the story. Hansen relied heavily on that report in a declaration she made supporting her case.
In court documents filed Nov. 1, however, Saccato was scathing about Goldsmith’s report.
“It is replete with blatant errors, false accusations, disingenuous conclusions and flat-out lies. Quite frankly it resembles a fictional novel,” he wrote.
He also asked the court to affirm his views about that tax collector’s bond. He said the county blatantly disregarded the law that requires it, and the court should recognize that as unacceptable.
“The court should commend Saccato for his efforts in requiring the Plaintiff’s compliance with the laws of the State of Oregon,” he wrote.
A hearing on Saccato’s motion to strike the suit against him has been delayed until March 27.
The Private Attorney General:
Recently, a rift has developed between Saccato and another man, who is not a named defendant, but is prominently mentioned in the case as having allegedly harassed Hansen. That man is Paul Mitchell, self-styled “private attorney general,” an anti-tax advocate who runs a right-wing conspiracy theory website called supremelaw.org.
Mitchell notified the county in June that he might file a $42 million lawsuit against it. Mitchell threatened to sue on behalf of the taxpayers to recover triple damages on that $14 million Hartman claims they’d been overcharged. He subsequently demanded that the county pay him $280,000 of that money as a “management fee.”
Saccato’s theory that Hansen might have committed mail fraud when she sent out tax statements without a bond was inspired by Mitchell.
Mitchell, whose real name is Mitchell Paul Modeleski, was charged in federal district court in Wyoming in 2014 with obstruction of justice in connection with a tax fraud case. Following a psychological evaluation and competency hearing, the court ruled Mitchell was not competent to stand trial and the charges against him were dismissed. The judge in the case said Mitchell suffered from an unwavering delusion that government officials lacked authority because they wouldn’t provide specific credentials.
In an interview with The News-Review last week, Saccato said he used to send Mitchell money while he was in jail, before the case was dismissed. He also took care of Mitchell’s possessions, and helped him find housing after he moved to Roseburg.
Saccato said he and Mitchell went to visit a member of the Hammond family in Harney County, so Mitchell could present some legal research he thought would help ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were sentenced in 2015 to five years in prison for setting a fire on public land. The Hammond case sparked the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter.
In mid-October of this year, Mitchell and Saccato had a falling out, according to emails and a letter leaked to The News-Review. Mitchell asserted in a letter to Hartman and Leif that Saccato owed him $7,500. Mitchell said he was unable to buy food or pay rent, and compared his situation to slavery.
In an email to Valynn Currie, a close friend of Saccato’s, that was also copied to Hartman and Leif, he elaborated that he was owed for legal research he did to prepare Saccato’s pleadings in the Hansen vs. Hartman lawsuit, as well as assistance with unspecified IRS issues.
Saccato said he believes Mitchell is solid when it comes to his view of the law, though he said Mitchell sometimes goes “sideways” on him, as with their recent fallout. He said he experienced similar problems with Mitchell about six months ago.
Hansen has alleged Mitchell and the defendants in her lawsuit strategized together about filing that $42 million tort claim. Mitchell asserted in the recent email to Currie that there was a group of people who encouraged him to file that claim, and that they had abandoned him.
“I am being deliberately isolated and left to twist in the wind with a damages claim which you and all of your closest associates in Roseburg had fully and consciously encouraged almost from the very first day I moved to Roseburg,” he wrote.
Mitchell didn’t name the others involved in the alleged plot, so it’s not clear whether Hartman, Leif or other defendants in Hansen’s suit were included. Saccato admitted he discussed the tort claim proposal with Mitchell beforehand, but said neither Leif nor Hartman was involved. Saccato said his only motive was to get relief for the taxpayers, not to benefit himself.
“I’m not doing this for personal gain. I’m doing this for the 6,000 people that got fleeced out of up to $14 million,” he said.