Bringing accountability and transparency to Salem

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Governor Kate Brown pledged to increase transparency and accountability in Oregon state government after she took office in early 2015 following Governor John Kitzhaber’s resignation under a cloud of ethics challenges related to alleged influence peddling.

Since her inauguration as Oregon’s 38th Governor, editorials and articles published in multiple news outlets throughout the state have questioned whether she has lived up to that pledge.

The fact of the matter is that little ethics reform has been accomplished during the nearly two years since Brown became Governor. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have introduced several ethics reform bills.

Only three ethics bills were enacted and signed into law during the 2015 session. Each of those bills appeared to originate in the Governor’s office and provided only limited ethics reform on topics that were “hot” in media reporting, such as disclosure of public records, executive influence peddling and the effectiveness of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC).

Senate Bill 9 directed the Secretary of State’s office to audit state agency public records practices regarding retention and disclosure and report the results of the audit to the Legislative Assembly. The bill changes no other law and requires no other action.

HB 2020 amended state statute to provide a definition for “first partner” and expand the definition of “public official” to include the newly defined “first partner.” It is widely believed the bill was introduced and passed due to the allegations of influence peddling surrounding former Governor Kitzhaber’s fiancée Cylvia Hayes.

HB 2019 expanded the membership of the OGEC from seven to nine members. It also made procedural changes in how the OGEC addresses complaints, enhanced the Legislature’s role in making appointments of ethics commissioners and appropriated nearly half a million additional dollars to the Commission.

Many other bills were introduced during the 2015 session aimed at enhancing government transparency and accountability. A number of those concepts had significant bipartisan support. However, Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate actively prevented most of them from being enacted into law.

Senate Democrats voted against bills that would have created a process for the impeachment of dishonest politicians and required statements made by witnesses to legislative committees be made under oath and be subject to charges of false swearing.  A bill to require that the name of the legislator requesting amendments to a bill be identified on the proposed amendments also failed to receive a vote.

House Democrats voted against bills to require statements made by witnesses to legislative committees be made under oath, allow for the appointment of independent counsel to investigate Executive Branch misconduct, require written or oral statements made by a witness who is an elected official or a person in charge of a public agency be made under oath and placing the liability of wages paid to a public employee during a period of administrative leave due to a pending criminal investigation on the employee if the employee is convicted.

Another bill was proposed that would have required information in a voter’s pamphlet statement to be true. That bill was defeated on party-line votes in both the Senate and the House.

The 2016 session saw the passage of HB 4067, which provides protection for government employees who serve as whistleblowers and come forward with information regarding suspected wrongdoing by public officials. HB 3562, a similar bill that made a number of other much-needed changes, did not even receive a hearing during the session that took place in 2015.

But aside from that one exception, ethics reform bills didn’t fare much better in the 2016 session.

Senate Democrats voted against bills prohibiting elected officials from accepting campaign funds from organizations with which they have negotiated, approved or supervised the negotiation of a contract in the previous two years and requiring the name of a legislator requesting amendments to a bill be identified on the proposed amendments.

I introduced a bill to end state agency abuse of attorney-client privilege.  Even though the bill was co-sponsored by the Senate President, it never received a vote.

House Democrats again voted against allowing for the appointment of independent counsel to investigate Executive Branch misconduct. They also opposed legislation allowing legislative review of administrative rules.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) is a Washington D.C.-based American non-profit investigative journalism organization. Its stated mission is “to reveal abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty by powerful public and private institutions in order to cause them to operate with honesty, integrity, accountability and to put the public interest first.”

CPI has previously issued Oregon failing or very low grades in virtually every category the organization evaluated. Failing grades were handed out on Public Access to Information, Executive Accountability, Political Financing, Procurement Lobby Disclosure, Ethics Enforcement Agencies, State Pension Fund Management and Judicial Accountability.

Oregon Legislative Accountability did not fare much better receiving a dismal “D minus.” The State’s Electoral Oversight received an average “C” grade.

Only the State Budgeting Process was graded better than average by CPI. The fact that the only constitutionally required action of the Oregon Legislative Assembly is to balance the state’s budget may be responsible for the better “B” performance.

In my opinion, even the state budgeting process may be overrated by CPI. I would recommend the organization take a closer look at the extent to which the state has obligated future generations to pay for current facilities and services by borrowing money through long-term bonding. They should also make a closer evaluation of the State’s unfunded future liabilities, including PERS and public employee compensation.

Much work obviously remains to be accomplished if Oregon is to even achieve average grades. Hopefully, the Democrat Governor and legislative majority will heed the failing grades and work with our Republican minorities to take action during the 2017 Legislative Assembly.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls