Former Oregon Department of Corrections assistant director sues agency

The employee names Colette Peters, former director of state prisons and now the Federal Bureau of Prisons chief, in the lawsuit

By: - August 1, 2023 5:36 pm

Colette Peters (center), former head of Oregon corrections and now director of federal prisons, is named in an Oregon lawsuit. (Oregon Department of Corrections)

A former Oregon Department of Corrections assistant director has filed a $1.6 million whistleblower lawsuit against the agency, alleging she faced retaliation and was fired when she reported concerns about her superiors taking illegal actions in several instances.

In the lawsuit, Nathaline Frener, a former assistant director of the agency’s Correctional Services Division, describes alleged turmoil and backstabbing within the agency, where she worked from 2019 until July 2022. The lawsuit, filed in Marion County Circuit Court, alleges that in three cases agency bosses tried to flout the law. In each instance, the former director of the agency, Colette Peters, was allegedly involved. Peters is now director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Peters is not listed as a defendant in the suit.

Nathaline Frener is a former assistant director in the Oregon Department of Corrections. (Courtesy of Nathaline Frener)

Frener alleges that  Peters in November 2021 had the agency’s IT department check employee emails in an unsuccessful bid to find out who leaked then-Gov. Kate Brown’s memo about inmate sentence commutations to The Oregonian/OregonLive. Frener says she told her bosses the memo “was a public record and DOC should not be investigating employees without sending out appropriate notices.” 

Peters was sworn into her federal post on Aug. 2, 2022. Four days earlier, Peters sent Frener a letter stating she was terminating her and taking the leadership of the Correctional Service Division in a different direction, the lawsuit says.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed July 17.

Another retaliation case

In another case, Frener’s bosses allegedly pressured her to come up with a plan to illegally retaliate against another employee and block her from returning to the agency after she was laid off. Instead, Frener warned her bosses that that action would be illegal. 

The worker in question, Gina Raney-Eatherly, later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the agency in a whistleblower case after she raised concerns about the use of grant money and the accuracy of another manager’s legislative testimony. A jury awarded her and another former employee $2.4 million in April.

Frener alleges in her lawsuit that the top brass at the corrections department restructured the agency so they could lay off Raney-Eatherly. Then another position opened up at the agency that Raney-Eatherly was first in line to fill under the state’s rules for laid-off employees to return. Frener alleges her bosses urged her to keep the position open until the two-year window passed that allows workers to return from a layoff. 

Frener resisted those moves, saying they were illegal and hired Raney-Eatherly anyway, the lawsuit says. Afterward, Frener alleges, her supervisors pressured her to come up with a plan to get rid of Raney-Eatherly before her return to the agency. Frener said she told her bosses she would treat the worker like any other agency employee.

In another example, Frener alleges top agency managers circumvented the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees by instructing their workers to “get religion” and claim an exemption. A human resources official also told managers the agency would drag out investigations into unvaccinated employees so they could keep working, the lawsuit alleges. 

Frener alleges that after she questioned that practice, Peters called her and defended the managers who encouraged religious exemptions, the lawsuit says. According to the lawsuit, Peters said the agency has no idea what is in the “hearts and minds” of people seeking a religious exemption.

Placed on leave

In November 2021, Frener was placed on administrative leave and was told staff complained about her, the lawsuit says. During the investigation, Frener alleges the complaints came from other staffers who complained about Raney-Eatherly’s return to the agency. The lawsuit says the complaints against Frener were untrue.

In February 2022, Frener told an investigator she believed she was sent home because of her support of Raney-Eatherly and her opposition to the agency’s resistance to the vaccine mandate and investigations of employees without proper notice.

In April 2022, while on leave, Frener testified in Raney-Eatherly’s lawsuit against the agency and said she believed she was facing retaliation for bringing her back to the corrections department.

Three months later, Frener was fired.

Her lawsuit seeks nearly $109,000 in lost wages, another $1 million in lost future wages and pension benefits and $500,000 in other compensatory damages for the anxiety and loss of enjoyment of life.

The agency has not responded to the allegations in court.


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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.