Salem city officials spent just three weeks in a failed effort to hire someone to investigate a top police official suspected of misconduct and instead let him retire with unearned pay, according to newly released documents.
With no investigator, city officials didn’t dig into the allegations against Deputy Police Chief Steve Bellshaw. Instead, they left him on paid administrative leave for another two months from the last documented effort to find an investigator.
He retired from the city in February under a deal that paid him $53,500 that he hadn’t earned. City officials have refused to release records or explain the allegations, claiming state law wouldn’t allow it and that they had to protect the city’s legal work.
But the new records show an off-and-on effort to bring in an outside investigator. Salem Reporter obtained the documents through a public records request that resulted in the disclosure of 137 pages of heavily redacted city records.
City Manager Keith Stahley didn’t respond to written questions about that failed effort.
After the documents were released, Bellshaw broke his silence on the matter.
His attorney, Dan Thenell, told Salem Reporter in an interview last week that Bellshaw was never told there would be an investigation. He said talks to reach a settlement started with the city at the time Bellshaw was placed on administrative leave, which happened on Nov. 12, 2021.
“To say that the city couldn’t find an investigator, I mean, I’m sorry, that is just laughable. I’ve never heard someone say that before,” he said.
Thenell said the city could have asked an outside police agency to investigate the allegations, brought in a private investigator or hired an attorney.
“I could name off the top of my head almost a dozen people that investigate these all the time throughout the state of Oregon,” he said.
Thenell also disclosed what he said was the basis for the city’s move against Bellshaw, who worked for the city for 32 years.
The allegations against Bellshaw stemmed from multiple incidents involving an arbitration or termination decision, the hiring of an employee and an allegation concerning credibility and truthfulness.
He said a city employee alleged that over some period of time, Bellshaw “was not completely forthcoming about issues that were never even identified.”
Thenell said one allegation came out of an arbitration involving an officer where “the arbitrator was somewhat critical of the city’s handling,” though he said he couldn’t recall the specifics of the ruling issued by the arbitrator.
The city has steadfastly refused to release that document, saying state law barred disclosing records of investigations when no discipline is involved. The law, however, allows disclosure to serve the public interest. The city also has insisted that virtually every document it has on the Bellshaw matter is confidential legal work.
That includes the effort to hire an investigator.
Salem officials initially refused to provide any documents. Salem Reporter sought an order from District Attorney Paige Clarkson to require the disclosure, a process allowed under Oregon’s public records law. While considering the matter, Clarkson in a Nov. 2 email said much of the material “appears to be part and parcel to the administrative work of obtaining a qualified investigator” and advised city officials to redact the documents in a way that distinguished public information from “exempted content.” The city disclosed the redacted records to Salem Reporter on Nov. 17, ahead of Clarkson’s final decision.
The intent of Salem Reporter’s request was to determine what trouble the city had finding an outside investigator. In an Oct. 5 statement, Courtney Knox Busch, the city’s strategic initiatives manager, explained the city wanted to go outside Salem city government because of Bellshaw’s high rank and “to ensure objectivity.”
The chain of records, mostly emails, starts four days after Bellshaw was put on leave and ends about three weeks later, on Dec. 6. Bellshaw’s last day with the city was Feb. 15.
The heavy redactions cloud how many investigators the city communicated with about the Bellshaw matter. Some of the records are almost entirely redacted, including a Nov. 21 email from Michelle Teed, then an assistant city attorney, to Police Chief Trevor Womack and Human Resources Manager Michele Bennett that says, “Good morning Chief and Michele” and is otherwise fully blacked out.
“I am working with our HR Department, and we are considering using an outside investigator to help with the investigation,” Teed wrote Nov. 17 in an email to a recipient whose name is concealed. “I’d like to talk with you about this as soon as you have a few minutes.” The following day, Teed emailed someone asking if they had “any recommendations for an outside investigator familiar with police.”
One potential investigator, whose identity is concealed by the city, said on Nov. 19 that they weren’t available for at least 30 days. “If I can be of assistance to you in the future on investigation matters, please let me know. Time is always of the essence in these matters, and my availability can change from week to week,” they said.
Teed replied the next day, “Thanks so much for the response. Candidly, everyone is busy. We might be back in touch.”
The series ends on Dec. 6, when someone sends to Teed the draft of a letter of engagement, and she responds that she will review it. Such letters typically are used to contract with attorneys. The city blacked out the entire draft as well as the name of the person sending it.
Thenell said the city never communicated to him that it couldn’t find an investigator.
He said the first time Bellshaw became aware of any allegations was the day he was placed on administrative leave, and he was never interviewed about the matter.
Thenell said “all the communications” after Bellshaw was placed on leave involved settlement discussions.
“I’m righteously offended that the city claims they couldn’t find an investigator to do this when there was settlement discussions from the very beginning,” Thenell said. “There was never going to be an investigation in the case because he was going to retire.”
Thenell said Bellshaw was well past retirement eligibility when faced with the allegations.
“To have this dumped on him in his 33rd year of service to the city of Salem, he was like, ‘I don’t need this, I can retire. These allegations are ridiculous,’” Thenell said. “It’s very unusual to have someone blindsided by allegations and then placed on administrative leave with no prior knowledge or understanding of what the concerns are.”
Thenell said the idea that a sophisticated city such as Salem couldn’t find an investigator was “utterly unsupportable.”
“This was never investigated. He’s never had an opportunity to respond to even the details of this. We have no idea the specific allegations, this was never presented to him,” he said of Bellshaw. “There’s never going to be an investigation or a full vetting of this, and so to some extent, it is unfair to him.”
The city has resisted disclosing anything about the Bellshaw matter in the four months since Salem Reporter’s July 12 request for the deputy chief’s separation agreement with the city. The agreement required both the city and Bellshaw to keep even its existence confidential.
In August, the city released the agreement after Salem Reporter petitioned Clarkson, asking her to order disclosure of the agreement.
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.