Ethics reforms take on new urgency

Gov. Kate Brown address legislators during her inauguration ceremony. Legislators are discussing ethics reforms in the wake of the scandal that led to the resignation of former Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Capital Bureau

SALEM — Oregon’s new Gov. Kate Brown says her first priorities in office will include broad ethics and public records reforms.

That includes yet-to-be-drafted legislation to strengthen the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. The commission’s dealings with former Gov. John Kitzhaber reveal some of its weaknesses.

In 2014, the ethics commission pitched a concept for legislation to be introduced in 2015 to expand transparency in the governor’s office. The bill would have required more of the governor’s advisers to disclose their financial interests on documents filed with the ethics commission. Staff in the Kitzhaber’s office shot down that idea.

Ron Bersin, the ethics commission’s executive director, told commissioners at a Nov. 7 meeting that staff in the Governor’s Office sent the message “please don’t write a (concept for the bill).” Bersin said Wednesday that the request came from Kitzhaber’s staff attorney Liani Reeves. Reeves could not be reached for comment.

There’s heightened interest in the financial interests of governor’s advisers because of the influence-peddling scandal around Kitzhaber and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes.

Hayes, who served as a powerful adviser to the governor on energy and economic development, never filed the financial disclosures required of Oregon public officials. Hayes was not on the state payroll, but emails have revealed she directed the work of state employees, including the chief operating officer.

Although Kitzhaber disclosed some of Hayes’ paid consulting work on his financial disclosures, he’s also said he disclosed more than required by state law.

Hayes wasn’t the first Kitzhaber adviser to spark concerns about lack of transparency and potential conflicts of interest. The ethics commission’s interest in the matter actually dates back to early 2014, when the commission investigated whether Patricia McCaig — Kitzhaber’s top adviser on the Columbia River Crossing project — should have filed lobbying and financial disclosures.

McCaig was hired as a consultant on the project, and the ethics commission determined it was unclear whether state law required her to file disclosures. Bersin said in early November this case revealed the need to update the law on which governor’s advisors must file disclosures. “McCaig is an example, because people have complained she is an adviser in the governor’s office,” Bersin said.

Rebuffed by the Kitzhaber’s office, Bersin and the ethics commission quietly decided last year to try a different approach: writing new rules on how to interpret state ethics law. The existing state law requires a long list of public officials to file statements of economic interest, including chiefs of staff and “any assistant in the Governor’s Office other than personal secretaries and clerical personnel.”

The ethics commission says that might have been adequate when the state law was written four decades ago, but the governor’s advisers now include consultants and specific employees of other agencies who are “borrowed” by the governor’s office for certain projects.

The commission approved the administrative rule at its Jan. 30 meeting, which happened to take place at the same time as Kitzhaber’s press conference to address questions about Hayes’ activities. Under the new rule, it appears both Hayes and McCaig would have to file disclosures.

According to the rule, “Any assistant in the Governor’s office means any person who assists, advises, supplements or represents the Governor, the Governor’s office or the Governor’s administration pursuant to any agreement, written or otherwise, irrespective of whether the person is compensated for the services or the location the services are performed or provided.”

— The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.

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