In 2017, Michael Fesser confided in his boss that he was facing racial discrimination at work. Then, his boss called in a personal favor to the local police department, asking them to arrest Fesser before he could sue the company.
Fesser — a 48-year-old black man who formerly worked for a towing company in Portland, Oregon — was awarded a $600,000 settlement this week for his wrongful arrest, the West Linn Police Department announced Tuesday. That's in addition to $415,000 paid to Fesser by his former boss and former company in 2018 for racial discrimination, The Oregonian reports.
According to court documents, West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus ordered two sergeants to build a case against Fesser in 2017, after he told his boss about the discrimination. The officers ultimately arrested and detained Fesser for allegedly stealing money from A&B Towing, his former employer.
"They started out by trying to assassinate my character," Fesser told CBS Portland, Oregon, affiliate KOIN-TV.
Timeus was allegedly doing a favor for Fesser's boss, Eric Benson, who believed Fesser planned to sue him for racial discrimination. According to court documents provided to CBS News by Fesser's lawyer, Fesser said employees at the company called him racist slurs and taunted him with a Confederate flag.
The West Linn Police Department recorded audio of Fesser at work without a warrant or court order. They arrested him on felony charges without probable cause and seized his cash, phone and documents alleging racial discrimination at the company — all without a search warrant.
Case records also show a slew of racist and crude text messages between the police department and Fesser's boss, KOIN reports. The officers never found any evidence of wrongdoing by Fesser while surveilling him.
While the City of West Linn agreed to settle the suit, the police department said the decision "is not an admission of liability," but rather "seeks 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," West Linn Police said in a statement.
Fesser's lawyer, Paul Buchanan, said he's happy with the settlement, but hopes the police department will reevaluate its policies moving forward.
"The pattern of police misconduct and racism by West Linn Police officers, facilitated by the Portland Police, is truly shocking and disheartening," Buchanan told CBS News on Wednesday. "We hope that our local police will take the very strong local and national reaction we are seeing to this case as a strong message that reform is required."
"It is scary that the police can so readily make up claims that are not true," Buchanan said.
Fesser reportedly took legal action to ensure a situation like this does not happen to another black man, including his two teenage sons. He now volunteers at a local prison and runs an organization that helps men transition out of prison — and he said he's ready to move on from the incident.
"What's really going to help is if we come together as a community and their community also and we just move through this process so it doesn't happen again," he said. "This cannot happen. It has to stop."
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