Two of Gov. Kate Brown’s top staffers stepped down last week following news reports that employment they held outside of her office could compromise their work for the government.
The governor’s spokespeople argued the assertions were baseless as the story played out. And since the resignations were confirmed, they haven’t acknowledged what might have been learned. What’s so dismaying is how familiar it feels.
Willamette Week had raised potential conflict-of-interest questions about Kristen Leonard, Brown’s chief of staff, and Abby Tibbs, her deputy chief of staff. A main issue for Leonard, who had served in the role since late 2015, centered on a software company she owns with her husband that has a $214,000 contract with the state to provide agencies with a tool to track legislative bills.
Tibbs, who joined the office full-time in December, had been overseeing budget work for Brown since October while on leave from her job as a lobbyist for Oregon Health and Science University.
Both Leonard and Tibbs resigned this week and Brown’s spokesman has said the departures weren’t related to the recent press reports.
Let’s recall the point at which many Oregonians are starting from. It’s not a smooth place of confidence and faith in their state government. For many, it’s a deep chasm of distrust.
To be clear, unlike her predecessor, Brown has required that all of her policy advisers submit financial disclosure statements to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission outlining any substantial income they receive. The disclosures also apply to members of their household. She also passed legislation so that future governors must make the same requirement.
That’s a fine step in the right direction.
The “statement of economic impact” forms are typically only required of public officials. They are public documents that are relatively easy to track down on the ethics agency’s website. But those forms don’t paint a full ethical picture. They’re not filed in real time and are often vague.
For instance, Leonard’s report on her 2016 financial information won’t be filed until mid-April. Her 2015 form names the company that she and her husband own. It states that Leonard’s household receives a salary from the company, Election Solutions, and provides a brief description of the company: “Software contract - BillTracker.”
The form doesn’t require Leonard to disclose that the company holds a six-figure contract with the state agency that Brown oversees. That requires more digging than should be expected of members of the public who Brown and her staff serve.
Oregonians need that map, but they also deserve the “X” that marks the spot. That’s where conflict of interest disclosures come in. Those disclosures cover specific issues that may allow a state employee to potentially gain personally from their government work.
To continue her work in restoring Oregonians’ trust in government, Brown should also require her employees complete those more detailed forms when her office becomes aware of a potential conflict.
It’s true state law doesn’t require the conflict disclosure unless a state employee is making an official decision on the specific issue. But what’s legal isn’t always the best politics. That’s especially true for Brown, just two years after Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned over questions about ethics.
Disclosing conflicts can be easier for lawmakers, council members or commissioners, who can stand before a public meeting, announce their potential conflict and recuse themselves from a vote.
But the public isn’t invited into the types of meetings where Leonard and Tibbs do much of their work.
Chris Pair, Brown’s spokesman, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that as a part of the hiring process, the governor’s legal counsel is typically made aware of such potential conflicts. In other words, these recent revelations about Brown’s chief of staff and her deputy probably weren’t surprises.
And they shouldn’t have been to Oregonians.
Brown should take this chance to make another solid step down the path of transparency and post information from conflict of interest forms online, as the ethic commission does with financial disclosures. That would allow the public to find the information more easily and pave the way for such disclosures in other state agencies and local government.
If it’s legitimate, light it up for all to see.