Officials dodge questions over handling of state official’s assault conviction

This story was updated Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 12:25 p.m. following a response from the Oregon Health Authority.

In October, state officials worked to smooth the retirement of an agency executive who was about to plead guilty to assaulting a child during an after-school program in Salem.

They allowed Reginald Richardson, 62, to pick his successor as executive director of the state Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. They intended to leave him on state payroll for months at his pay rate of over $200,000 a year.

But then-Gov. Kate Brown, who appointed Richardson, is now refusing to answer most questions about the case, including when they learned of his criminal behavior.

Oregon Health Authority Deputy Director Kris Kautz learned of a criminal investigation through a notice from the Department of Human Services on Feb. 25, spokesman Robb Cowie said. Cowie said Kautz notified the governor’s office of the investigation.

Brown and Oregon Health Authority officials wouldn’t answer whether they knew Richardson had moved to Chicago last summer while still holding his state job.

The silence leaves unanswered whether a state official’s deep political and social connections to those in state and local government shielded him as his criminal case unfolded.

Richardson did not respond to a call and email from Salem Reporter seeking to discuss the case and his departure from the state.

The assault occurred Jan. 26, 2022, at the Career Technical Education Center in northeast Salem during an after-school program run by Richardson’s company, Community Learning Institute.

Richardson took an 8-year-old boy out into a hallway who had disrupted class, grabbing the back of his neck and pushing him into a wall, according to surveillance camera video. 

“I recklessly caused physical injury,” Richardson would later admit.

The boy reported the assault to a counselor, who in turn alerted the state Department of Human Services.

The state Department of Justice investigated the assault. But Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum wouldn’t release records of the investigation.

A spokeswoman for the office said the Justice Department withheld records at the request of Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case. She wouldn’t answer whether the attorney general alerted the governor that a top state official was under criminal investigation.

Rosenblum’s office investigated at the request of Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack, who had worked closely with Richardson on criminal justice matters. Richardson served as president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP until he resigned in September.

Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson also recused herself from the case, asking her counterpart in Clackamas County to prosecute because she served on the state commission managed by Richardson.

A Marion County grand jury in May indicted Richardson on charges of fourth-degree assault and harassment. With the criminal charge pending, Richardson remained in charge of an independent agency tasked with improving Oregon’s substance abuse treatment and prevention programs.

A state judge in June allowed Richardson to leave the state and live in Chicago, according to court records. He later waived extradition.

State policy requires employees working remotely full time to document their request in the state human resources information system. The policy says employees working remotely from another state will be handled on a case-by-case basis, and requires an assessment to determine if out-of-state worker insurance is needed.

The state Department of Administrative Services has no record of such an assessment for Richardson, spokeswoman Andrea Chiapella said.

Public records obtained by Salem Reporter show that by at least July, Richardson was running his agency remotely, apparently without informing his supervisor. A mortgage company employee working in a suburban Chicago office contacted multiple Oregon state agencies in late June and early July seeking to verify Richardson’s employment and that he was working remotely.

That prompted Berri Leslie, the governor’s chief of staff and Richardson’s supervisor, to email Richardson July 6, saying he wasn’t listed in the state’s employee database as a remote worker.

“Can you let me know what your status is and make sure it’s updated in workday?” Leslie wrote, referring to the state’s human resources system. 

Richardson later responded that he had been working remotely since May 1, and his staff was as well. He did not mention relocating to Chicago.

No one in the governor’s office or at the health authority would address whether he sought permission to take his state top job halfway across the country.

Emails from Brown’s office and the Oregon Health Authority, obtained by Salem Reporter through public records requests, show state officials were preparing for Richardson to retire as executive director two weeks before he pleaded guilty to the assault.

Richardson told state officials he planned to retire Nov. 15 but remain on the state payroll until Feb. 1, 2023, to collect his remaining leave, emails show.

Salem Reporter requested from Brown’s office any emails between her staff and Richardson relating to the assault or resulting criminal case. On Jan. 6, the office released 125 pages of emails in response. The health authority released another 44 pages discussing transition plans for the office.

None mention the assault or Richardson’s conviction.

Richardson in late July sought a meeting with Brown to update her on the commission’s work, saying they hadn’t spoken since 2020. Emails released give no indication whether the meeting actually took place and with a transition to a new administration, key officials are no longer with the governor’s office.

But on Sept. 30, Richardson emailed Christian Gaston, Brown’s budget director, saying he needed a brief call “to give you a heads up on an issue” without disclosing what it was.

Gaston asked for a contact number, then emailed Richardon on Oct. 3, writing, “I spoke with Berri (Leslie, Brown’s deputy chief of staff). She agreed that a rotation from OHA would be best.”

Richardson on Oct. 5 then messaged that he’d spoken to his deputy, Jill Gray, who had agreed to serve as interim executive director.

“That sounds perfect,” Gaston responded.

Thirteen days later, Richardson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $6,250. He paid $1,000 to the boy’s family. He listed a Chicago address in court papers.

Cowie said the Department of Human Services notified Kautz, the health authority deputy director, of the guilty plea Dec. 7. Kautz again notified the governor’s office, he said.

Brown appointed Richardson to the director job in 2018. Richardson was making $202,476 annually in that role when he left, according to the Department of Administrative Services.

He shifted over from serving as deputy director of the Department of Human Services, a role he began in 2015. When he left that job, he was making $166,224 per year.

Brown’s office refused to answer questions from Salem Reporter about how her office handled information about the assault on the boy, saying the issue was a “personnel matter.”

Brown fired Richardson on Dec. 12, days after Salem Reporter inquired about his employment status. The firing was effective Dec. 15.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the commission still listed Richardson on its website as executive director.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.