Was John Plotkin Doomed the Day He Started at SAIF?

28 Jul, 2014 Bob Wilson


As the saga of John Plotkin's abrupt and improper termination drags on, thousands of SAIF documents continue to shed light on the story as well as raise more questions about how and why it even occurred. Plotkin was terminated after just 3 months as SAIF CEO based on what are now largely known as false and inaccurate allegations.

The general belief from previously published documents is that the effort to remove Plotkin started in mid-April, with an "investigation" into his behavior spearheaded by that company's HR department. However, an email recently uncovered casts some doubt on that assessment, and possibly indicates that the plot to remove Plotkin may have started very shortly after he arrived. That email, (available here) from Shannon Rickard, VP of Legal Services, to Ryan Fleming, VP of Operations and HR, seems innocuous on the surface. Viewed without the benefit of context, it appears to be designed to answer a particular question that may have been posed by Fleming.

The answer in retrospect, however, is loud and clear as to the greater events that were to eventually occur within SAIF regarding Plotkin. The email provides Fleming the specific SAIF bylaws that pertain to Board responsibilities regarding the hiring and supervision of the company CEO. The email is dated February 24, 2014, just 3 weeks or so after John Plotkin started his new job.

Specifically, the email contained an attachment with the bylaws and a clarification of one section by Rickard, saying, "Here is the relevant statute”.  That section, 656.574, pertains to the appointment of the manager by the board, and that said manager “serves at the pleasure of the board of directors”. It also clarifies the manager's authority to run SAIF, and their authority to employ, supervise and terminate employees in the course of that task.

We can only assume that Fleming, or someone within his department, had raised the question that prompted this email. Our question, of course, is why? Why would they need such a clarification? To what end and for what purpose would it be needed?

This occurred while Plotkin was learning the job. He was still touring with outgoing CEO Brenda Rocklin, and was probably trying to figure out where the executive washroom was. He hadn't yet had a chance to plant a single whoopee cushion, or make the first fake offensive comment. What could possibly have been the reason to ask for such information?

Why was this needed by the man and department that ultimately produced the flawed investigation resulting in the demise of the CEO?

Other emails recently uncovered show that the board of directors, which is now defending itself against allegations it violated state open meeting laws with the handling of this termination, is concerned about both litigation and reputation from the fallout. Vice Chair Robb Van Cleave sent an email on May 29th that is part of an interesting exchange. The thread (available here – redaction of email addresses created by us) starts with an angry email sent to Van Cleave and Board Chair Cathy Travis by an apparent SAIF employee, who lambastes them for their handling of the Plotkin affair. That email was forwarded to Shannon Rickard. In a follow up email, when discussing a potential “Name Clearing Hearing” for John Plotkin, Van Cleave writes “I am concerned that employees will be allowed to make allegations at a liberty hearing that are blatant lies about Board members and we won't have a chance to refute or defend.”

This will surprise people, but I completely agree with the man. I get it. It is a bitch when people make false allegations and the accused is not given a chance to “refute or defend”.  Perhaps Mr. Van Cleave should take John Plotkin to lunch and ask him how to best deal with that. I am sure he could enlighten him on the entire process, having lived it so recently himself.

And finally, in another email on the 29th (part of the previous file provided), Van Cleave asks “I'm also interested to know if a Board member would lose any level of legal protection if they leave the Board before this is settled?” That thought could explain why two of those Board members are continuing to serve well past the term limits put in place by the Governor who appointed them. Of course, legal protections could be moot if Plotkin's assertions that they violated open meeting laws are proven in upcoming court proceedings. Board members in Oregon who willingly violate those laws may be directly and personally liable for their actions, so there might be major personal liabilities for these people whether they remain on the board or not.

So the board is in defense mode, and it appears the HR led “investigation” into John Plotkin may have started while he was still adjusting his chair and figuring out where on his desk to put the picture of his wife. The employees of SAIF, who have valiantly spoken up over what they view as an egregious wrong, are entering the most challenging time in this saga. Sides appear to be entrenched, the board does not seem interested in reversing its error, and the legal machine is slowly starting its grind to justice for the aggrieved. For the employees the issue becomes keeping the fire burning, when those who oversee them are desperately hoping that the passionate flame will just flicker and die.

The good news, if there is any, is I still have several thousand pages of documents to pour through; and as the old joke about the overly optimistic child goes, “with all this crap there has to be a pony in here somewhere”. Should be an interesting fall….. And I am not talking seasons.


For a list of Bob's other SAIF/Plotkin articles (as well as a couple old AASCIF articles that get picked up in the search), Click here.

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