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An employer allegedly conspired with local police to have a black employee arrested before he could file a racial discrimination complaint — but their plot backfired.

Feb 13, 2020
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Michael FesserMichael Fesser
Michael Fesser complained about racial discrimination at work — then his boss conspired with police to have him arrested.

Courtesy of Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan LLP

  • Michael Fesser confided in his boss, Eric Benson, racial discrimination he faced while working for A&B Towing in 2017. 
  • Before Fesser could file a formal complaint, Benson conspired with his fishing buddy, the former police chief of a local Portland, Oregon, police department, to have Fesser arrested, Oregon Live reported.
  • After several lawsuits and investigations unraveled the scheme, Fesser has won over $1 million in settlements. 
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After working for A&B Towing in Portland, Oregon, for 16 years, Michael Fesser confided in the owner of the company, Eric Benson, about the racial discrimination he faced at work in 2017.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="But before Fesser could file a formal complaint, his boss conspired with his fishing buddy — the former local police chief — to build a case against his employee and have him arrested, Oregon Live reported.&nbsp;” data-reactid=”23″>But before Fesser could file a formal complaint, his boss conspired with his fishing buddy — the former local police chief — to build a case against his employee and have him arrested, Oregon Live reported. 

After investigations and several lawsuits unraveled his employer’s scheme, Fesser has been awarded over $1 million in settlements — the largest amount awarded for a wrongful arrest case in the state. 

Local police allegedly conspired to build a case against Fesser

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="In 2017, Fesser raised concerns with Benson about the racial harassment he was facing at work. He claimed his co-workers called him racist slurs, and one even asked him if the Confederate flag on the back of his truck bothered Fesser, according to Oregon Live.” data-reactid=”26″>In 2017, Fesser raised concerns with Benson about the racial harassment he was facing at work. He claimed his co-workers called him racist slurs, and one even asked him if the Confederate flag on the back of his truck bothered Fesser, according to Oregon Live.

Instead of addressing his employee’s concerns, court documents seen by Insider allege Benson called in a personal favor with his fishing buddy, former West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus. The towing company owner wanted to have Fesser arrested, believing Fesser was going to file a lawsuit against his company. 

Benson convinced Timeus to build a case against Fesser for unsupported accusations that Fesser was stealing proceeds from the car auctions he oversaw for the towing company, documents said.

Michael Fesser SchemeMichael Fesser Scheme
Michael Fesser’s lawyer obtained texts between the A&B Towing owner Eric Benson and West Linn detective Tony Reeves

Courtesy of Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan LLP

Timeus then had West Linn officers conduct an “unlawful and unwarranted surveillance operation” of Fesser, who watched Fesser work with the company security cameras and had a co-worker make secret audio recordings of Fesser without a warrant or court order, according to court documents.

Court documents included extensive photos of text messages detailing Benson’s communication with the detective Timeus had assigned to the case, West Linn Detective Tony Reeves. Reeves gave Benson live updates of his “investigation.” The pair exchanged homophobic and racist remarks, which Reeves later attempted to deny having said by deleting the text messages.

Although Reeves later admitted they never found any evidence against Fesser, he had several Portland officers arrest Fesser on his way home from work in February 2017. 

“My game, my rules,” Reeves wrote to Benson before police apprehended Fesser. “It’s better that we arrest him before he makes the complaint [of race discrimination]. Then it can’t be retaliation.”

Another veteran West Linn police lieutenant helped Reeves have Fesser arrested. The pair claimed Fesser was a “gang associate” despite not having contact with Fesser for more than two decades, according to court documents.

 Although West Linn officers didn’t have a search warrant, they pulled Fesser over on the highway, seizing his cash, cellphone, and a letter addressed to his boss about the alleged discrimination he faced at work. Officers arrested Fesser on false aggravated theft allegations. 

When Fesser went back to the jail to retrieve his belongings days later, Detective Reeves allegedly informed Fesser he was being fired from his job at A&B Towing. 

Fesser’s lawsuit prompted police to pursue unsubstantiated theft charges

In November 2017, Fesser filed a lawsuit against Benson and A&B Towing in Multnomah County, alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. Fesser’s legal action prompted West Linn police to pursue the previously dropped theft charges, asking the  Multnomah County District Attorney’s office to revive Fesser’s case. 

With testimonies from Reeves and Benson, Fesser was indicted on five counts of fire-degree theft. While Fesser’s own civil lawsuit was pending, lawyers representing Benson offered to have the criminal charged dropped if Fesser would drop his lawsuit — but Fesser refused.

Michael Fesser Scheme textsMichael Fesser Scheme texts
Eric Benson and detective Tony Reeves discuss plans to arrest Michael Fesser in text messages.

Courtesy of Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan LLP

Fesser and his lawyer, Paul Buchanan, later filed a federal civil case against the West Linn Police Department in the summer of 2018.  

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content=""This case vividly illustrates a ready willingness on the part of the West Linn police to abuse the enormous power they have been given, and a casual, jocular, old-boy-style racism of the kind that we Oregonians tend to want to associate with the Deep South rather than our own institutions," Buchanan told Oregon Live.&nbsp;” data-reactid=”66″>”This case vividly illustrates a ready willingness on the part of the West Linn police to abuse the enormous power they have been given, and a casual, jocular, old-boy-style racism of the kind that we Oregonians tend to want to associate with the Deep South rather than our own institutions,” Buchanan told Oregon Live

In a huge break for the case, Fesser’s lawyers obtained the incriminating texts between the towing company owner and West Linn detective Reeves, which Reeves attempted to delete.

All the criminal charges against Fesser were dropped and Benson and A&B Towing agreed to pay him $415,000 to settle his discrimination lawsuit. 

Fesser’s continued to seek justice

In Fesser’s federal civil lawsuit against the West Linn Police Department, its lawyers asked for the court to dismiss the case, arguing police officers were acting on behalf of A&B Towing company and that the police department couldn’t be held liable. 

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="After a year of litigation,&nbsp; the West Linn Police Department finally settled with Fesser for $600,000, making the total sum of his award over $1 million. The department announced the settlement on February 11, clarifying it was "not an admission of liability" but a move to "avoid additional expense, uncertainty, and drain on public resources."” data-reactid=”71″>After a year of litigation,  the West Linn Police Department finally settled with Fesser for $600,000, making the total sum of his award over $1 million. The department announced the settlement on February 11, clarifying it was “not an admission of liability” but a move to “avoid additional expense, uncertainty, and drain on public resources.”

“As we move forward, the West Linn Police Department strives to learn from both our past mistakes and our successes,” read a statement from the West Linn Police Department. 

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Several public officials, including Oregon's Gov. Kate Brown, called for investigations into wrongdoing by police. Reeves, who was promoted in the midst of the scandal, has now been placed on paid administrative lead along with a veteran officer who helped have Fesser arrested, Oregon Live reported.&nbsp;” data-reactid=”73″>Several public officials, including Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown, called for investigations into wrongdoing by police. Reeves, who was promoted in the midst of the scandal, has now been placed on paid administrative lead along with a veteran officer who helped have Fesser arrested, Oregon Live reported. 

Meanwhile, Fesser’s former employer, A&B Towing, has lost its contract with Portland’s Bureau of Transportation. Although Fesser and his lawyer, Buchanan, were initially concerned that the law enforcement agency would not be held accountable for their actions, the recent developments have made them “hopeful.” 

“Michael’s concern in agreeing to a resolution was that it would just be West Linn’s insurance paying him off and that there would be no real change,” Buchanan told Insider. “So seeing the developments of the last few days as the facts have become known to the public is very gratifying.  We are hopeful that there will be true accountability and change.”  

Fesser, a 48-year-old father of eight, now runs a prison ministry and a transitional program to help formerly incarcerated men readjust to life after prison. In taking legal action, Fesser told Oregon Live he hoped to prevent this from happening to other black men, including his sons. 

“Ever since that arrest, I was terrified to go to West Linn,” Fesser told Oregon Live. “This has to be exposed, and it has to stop.”

A&B Towing and its owner, Eric Benson, did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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