Former penitentiary superintendent’s relationship with employee spilled into workplace, investigation finds

The former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary gave preferential treatment to one employee with whom he had a romantic relationship and verbally abused others, an investigator retained by the state Department of Justice found.

Brandon Kelly resigned Jan. 11 from the Oregon Department of Corrections, five months after he was placed on administrative leave.

Kelly since 2016 had served as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, the oldest and only maximum-security prison that the state department operates. The prison holds about 1,500 people.

On behalf of the corrections department, the justice department brought in Jill Goldsmith of Portland-based Workplace Solutions NW to investigate allegations against Kelly, according to the fact finding report.

The corrections department said it received notice of the report Dec. 20, 2021. The Statesman Journal first reported the findings.

Goldsmith determined that Kelly’s romantic relationship with an employee negatively impacted the workplace at the Salem prison, which included Kelly berating staff who didn’t immediately follow the employee’s directions or get along with her as well as retaliating against those who mentioned or were aware of the affair.

The report found Kelly made operational decisions “motivated by his romantic interest” in the employee. 

The report does not name the employee or her position at the penitentiary.

Goldsmith wrote that Kelly denied ever having a romantic relationship with the employee.

“He told me they were just friends and had supported each other when they were separated from their spouses and there was ‘no romantic relationship,’” she wrote in the report.

Kelly told Salem Reporter Tuesday, “My personal life is my personal life. I had a personal relationship with that individual and it did not impact my professional decisions.”

When the employee applied for another position, Kelly attempted to influence the recruitment process in her favor, Goldsmith said in the report, and another employee left the institution because of the way Kelly treated him.

“He actually left for a promotional process where I was his reference,” Kelly said of that employee on Tuesday.

According to the report, “Kelly has conveyed to the (Oregon State Penitentiary) executive team that he is powerful in the Department of Corrections by telling them that they cannot trust others in the chain of command, that other leaders are ‘incompetent’ and ‘lacking real leadership’ and ‘just figureheads’ that rely on him for decision making.” 

Goldsmith also found Kelly verbally abused subordinates, “berating them with personal derogatory insults” such calling them as fat, dumb or otherwise incompetent. According to the report, he told one employee, “You need to work out more. Just face it, your wife would rather (expletive) me than you.”

Kelly told Salem Reporter Tuesday that six people who were interviewed and refuted the allegations were “deemed to be untruthful.”

“In my belief, the investigator had a preconceived conclusion and only included the interviews or what she believed substantiated her thoughts,” he said. “There were numerous people that were interviewed that were offering a different side of the story that were not included in my report.”

Kelly was previously disciplined in 2012, when he was the assistant superintendent of security at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, following an investigation by the corrections department’s human resources.

According to an investigative report obtained through a public records request, Kelly “used the F-word” and a word describing male genitalia in a June 2012 meeting.

He told Salem Reporter Tuesday that he used inappropriate language in the meeting. “That was true,” he said. “I accept responsibility for what I said on that date.”

Kelly joined the corrections department in 1998 as a correctional officer at the Oregon State Penitentiary prison. He first became superintendent of Santiam Correctional Institution in 2015 before being transferred four miles back down the road.

Corey Fhuere has been the prison’s superintendent since February.

The agency said in August 2021 that Kelly continued receiving his $14,238 monthly salary while on leave. He resigned Jan. 11, according to records of the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training which licenses officers and investigates complaints of misconduct.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.