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Oct. 31, 2020

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Benton, 2 others file suit against county

Former Department of Environmental Services director seeks $2 million, alleging retaliation, threats

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:

Don Benton, an outgoing state senator and former Clark County department head, has filed a lawsuit against the county with two other former employees alleging that they experienced retaliation and threats for opposing a “hostile, intimidating and abusive environment.”

The complaint, filed in Clark County Superior Court on Wednesday, concerns Benton’s controversial tenure as the director of the county’s now-defunct Department of Environmental Services. The lawsuit targets County Manager Mark McCauley and alleges that he interfered with Benton’s management of the department by undermining his budget, morale and hiring decisions.

The lawsuit also alleges that Christopher Clifford, former DES program coordinator, and Susan Rice, former DES administrative assistant, experienced retaliation for aligning themselves with Benton, who increasingly found himself at odds with McCauley and other county officials.

The complaint was filed by Portland lawyer Thomas Boothe, who didn’t return a call seeking comment.

The lawsuit does not specify damages, but tort claims — which are typically precursors to litigation — were filed with the county on the behalf of Benton and Clifford in October sought $2 million each and another seeking $1 million for Rice. McCauley told The Columbian that the county didn’t respond to the claims.

“If we believe a tort claim has merit, we’ll deal with the party filing it,” he said before declining to comment further.

The complaint says Benton felt actions against him were occurring at the request of County Chair Marc Boldt.

“There’s no truth in that, and it will come out,” Boldt said. He declined further comment.

Benton was hired to the position in 2013 amid questions over his qualification for the position.

The complaint states that Benton received high marks for his work, yet was harassed and subject to a “degrading work environment” after he complained about and resisted allegedly improper actions by McCauley, including allegedly misusing funds and misleading the county council.

“After being distraught over the degrading work environment, Benton sought medical treatment for his stress, mental health counseling and legal advice,” reads the complaint.

The complaint states that as their relationship soured, McCauley, in January, suddenly revoked the flex hours and telecommuting arrangement Benton, a Republican, had previously used while the Legislature was in session. It also states that in April 2016, Benton filed a whistleblower complaint with the county’s Human Resources Department that explained that “he felt his being honest was becoming a liability.”

According to the complaint, Rice lost her job after DES was dissolved and has been unable to obtain similar employment with the county after she complained to Boldt about McCauley’s treatment of Benton.

The complaint also claims that McCauley yelled at Clifford during a holiday party. It also alleges that Clifford lost his job after aiding Benton with his whistleblower complaint and supporting former Councilor David Madore, who’s clashed with McCauley, after he was subject to a harassment complaint.

The Department of Environmental Services was dissolved by McCauley over the summer in what was termed a cost-cutting move.

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