The coverup of a ‘harmless’ prank churns through the city for three years without consequence
By Allan Classen
Although my home was ground zero in a glitter bomb attack, I was slow to realize anything memorable had happened. I supposed someone was peeved enough by my critical coverage of impact-hammer pile driving—and advocacy for the quieter auger-drilled method—to send a glitter-enhanced “auger this” message.
The glitter bomb mailing tube arrived at our home office in mid-2018. I had no clue of its origin until the following year, when Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss asked if I had received such a package. He had indications that someone from the Office of Community and Civic Life had sent it.
Civic Life includes the Noise Control Program, whose manager had been notoriously hostile toward restrictions on pile driving, so that made sense. Still, evidence was scarce and Jaquiss eventually let it go.
Later, I got phone calls from Civic Life employees who had heard rumors about the glitter bomb. In early 2020, I asked the supervisor of the Noise Control Program, Kenya Williams, if he had sent it. He denied any knowledge, even asking what a glitter bomb was.
In mid-2020, I filed a public records request with the city, receiving for my $187 a raft of redacted pages, a regurgitation of my conversation with Williams and the name of Katherine Couch, a Noise Control employee under Williams’ supervision, as the alleged glitter bomber. I learned that by March 4 of that year, Couch had been interviewed by Michael Montoya of Civic Life and Shane Davis of the city Bureau of Human Resources. However, the transcript of the interview was fully redacted on grounds of employee confidentiality.
The dearth of records was puzzling. How do two bureaus coordinate an investigation without leaving some trace of communication?
Jim Redden of the Portland Tribune took a stab at the story, writing last October that Montoya was overseeing an investigation of the glitter bomb incident but had no estimate of when it would be completed. The fact that the investigation was more than two years old could have been a story in itself.
“It’s truly absurd how long this has been dragging on,” city Ombudsman Margie Sollinger wrote. “In retrospect, this seems like another example of the pitfalls of deferring to bureaus to do their jobs properly when the stakes are important.”
So I made a second records request. The response was tardy, but it finally came last month. At last I had proof that Civic Life, right to the top, had been suppressing the matter all along.
“Jim Redden is doing an incredibly acrobatic job of connecting anything he knows about Civic Life to this story,” Civic Life Director Suk Rhee emailed Montoya a day after the Tribune story was printed.
“I attempted to get Jim to not run the story, as it involved an ongoing investigation that we just didn’t have the answers to and that involved a personnel issue,” Civic Life spokesperson Daniel McArdle-Jamies wrote Rhee and Montoya that day. “I also underscored that the outcome of this is bad, as someone could get fired and/or be embarrassed publicly, and that he was blowing this out of proportion.”
Rhee appreciated the attempt. “Thanks for your effort here, Daniel,” she emailed him.
Neither took notice of the contradictory classification of the story as both too consequential and too unimportant to report.
Although not pleased to read “glitter bomb” in a headline, Rhee had reason for relief. The Tribune story identified Couch as merely a suspected glitter bomber with no further details.
Montoya also felt the damage was limited. “Daniel and I both spoke to him [Redden] trying to dissuade the story, but he already had everything by the time he called me,” Montoya emailed Rhee. “Unless you direct me to do something, I am going to ignore this, as it would take a day I don’t have to fact check or otherwise do anything in response.”
Rhee and Montoya closed the issue—at least for their bureau—with a written reprimand to Couch’s personnel file Dec. 15.
“This memorandum serves as a managerial directive related to your report to coworkers that you sent a glitter bomb to a member of the press in retaliation for an unfavorable story.
“[While the] investigation did not result in conclusive findings of your misconduct … given your admission that you claimed responsibility for the glitter bomb as a joke I want to admonish you from repeating such statements again.
“Your report to coworkers that you had sent a glitter bomb to Allan Classen was not without consequence. Due to a complaint made about your statement, your comment resulted in numerous hours of city staff time, a press story, an investigation involving multiple bureaus, members of the public, multiple employees, and public records requests—all requiring staff time including attorney reviews. Additionally, your report to coworkers damaged your credibility, the reputation of the noise office, the bureau and the city. These impacts warrant this directive.
“Needless to say, it is unacceptable for a city employee to send a member of the media anything as a form of retaliation for an unfavorable story.
“With this directive I will consider this matter closed.”
Needless to say, Civic Life did not get back to Redden to tell him the investigation was completed.
Nor was I informed. At one point, the investigators saw that as a necessary step. Davis emailed Montoya on Sept. 8, “I do think, at some point, we are going to have to ask Classen about it. We need someone to ultimately verify that the g-bomb was actually sent. And if we can get said confirmation it will help us close in on Couch.”
In that email, Davis was also concerned with “who outside of the office he [Redden] spoke to about the glitter bomb.”
In January, I interviewed City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty about the surprise assignment of Civic Life to her portfolio. In preparation for that phone call, I listed several topics I wanted to raise, including the status of the glitter bomb investigation.
The whole subject was news to Hardesty, so she asked Rhee for background. Rhee sent the following email to me, with a copy to Hardesty’s office:
“You have stated that you received a glitter bomb and that you would like to know the results of an investigation of an allegation that an employee of Community & Civic Life was involved.
“An investigation was thoroughly conducted by our office and concluded with no evidence of involvement of any city employee.”
Couch, of course, was and remains a city employee, continuing her role with the Noise Control Program. And since the statement refers broadly to involvement, those involved include employees of Civic Life, the Bureau of Human Resources and the offices of the City Attorney and the City Ombudsman.
In short, Rhee lied to the elected official she is accountable to.
I gave Hardesty evidence of the falsification, asking if this was grounds for Rhee’s dismissal, and got no response for four days. Finally, her spokesperson offered this statement:
“I take allegations of misconduct very seriously, and particularly issues that involve the media and public trust. For these reasons, I continue to look forward to reviewing the results of the upcoming cultural assessment of the Office of Community & Civic Life and to learn more about how the office can improve its internal culture, build trust and better serve our city.
“I am happy to keep the public informed about the process and transformation regarding the bureau as a whole but believe it would be a poor management practice to publicly speak to specific personnel issues.”
It was a stunning deflection over a singular offense known to have ended the careers of bureaucrats here and elsewhere. We talked to three former elected officials, three others who worked for elected officials and one political consultant to comment on the general principle (separate from Civic Life or the glitter bomb matter). All considered lying by a department head to an elected official a firing offense, with some latitude related to the significance of the deception, but most wanted to speak off the record or limit their comments for attribution.
Northwest Raleigh Street resident Bob Weinstein, the mayor of Ketchikan, Alaska, for 12 years and an aide to a U.S. senator, had no such inhibition.
“Having served for many years in government in both senior appointed as well as elected positions, I cannot imagine tolerating dishonesty on the part of a staff member under my supervision, especially a senior employee in charge of a department,” Weinstein said.
“If such an employee is willing to lie to his or her boss, I would think the employee’s lack of a moral compass would result in lying to subordinate employees and to the public as well.
“An elected official especially needs to be able to absolutely rely on the fact that information provided by professional staff members is presented honestly and truthfully.
“I also worked for a U.S. senator [Mark Gebich] for almost six years. I am sure that, if I were to ever have lied to him or to my direct supervisor, I would have been—and should have been—terminated immediately,” he said.