In the past few weeks, two well-researched news reports from two highly regarded publications — one from the Malheur Enterprise and another from Willamette Week — examined the many business interests of State Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, whose House District 57 covers parts of Morrow, Gilliam, Sherman, Wasco and Umatilla counties.
As documented in these recent comprehensive investigative reports, as well as reporting over the years by the Hermiston Herald and East Oregonian, Smith’s private business interests as an economic development professional employed by several entities, including Eastern Oregon University, Malheur County, Wheeler County, Harney County, The Columbia Development Authority and more, tend to paint a picture of a public servant successfully leveraging his government access and position.
The popular legislator, known for bringing home the pork to his home district, has the most seniority of any Oregon House member. He has been elected to 10 consecutive terms and, although in the minority party, holds some of the best committee seats in the legislature. These include co-vice chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, co-chair of the committee’s general government committee and a seat on the committee’s capital construction subcommittee.
Over the years, Smith has voted on specific pieces of legislation in the House of Representatives related directly and indirectly to his private business and declared conflicts of interest on dozens of occasions. The average citizen might ask if that is all that is required? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The Oregon Constitution dictates that its citizen legislators should publicly declare their conflicts of interest but, oddly, they are prohibited from recusing themselves from votes.
Smith says he has vetted each business contract with the Oregon Ethics Commission before taking it, and gotten the commission’s blessing before moving forward. Indeed, it appears that in each and every instance in which there would appear to be a conflict of interest, Smith has gone to great lengths to obey the letter of the law. But it is the spirit of the law that may not be well served.
The blame lies at the feet of the law itself. Knowing what has been reported about the intersection of Smith’s personal business and his public service, read the following passage from the Oregon Government Ethics Law ORS 244.040(1):
“ ... a public official may not use or attempt to use official position or office to obtain financial gain or avoidance of financial detriment for the public official, a relative or member of the household of the public official, or any business with which the public official or a relative or member of the household of the public official is associated, if the financial gain or avoidance of financial detriment would not otherwise be available but for the public official’s holding of the official position or office.”
The language would appear to be clear and self-explanatory. But it’s that final clause, “if the financial gain or avoidance of financial detriment would not otherwise be available but for the public official’s holding of the official position or office,” that is problematic.
Who decides if the financial gain would not otherwise be available? Some of Smith’s defenders go to great lengths to make it clear that his legislative service and choice committee assignments play no role whatsoever in him and/or his company being hired. Seriously?
The time is past due for legislative action to clarify the law and put some teeth into its enforcement. Until then, it appears that the only thing stopping future conflicts of interest are a legislator’s personal conviction of what is right and what is wrong. The onus is also on lawmakers to self-disclose conflicts.
We call upon the state of Oregon to eliminate ambiguity in the law, and further, to allow lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes in which they have a possible conflict of interest. This would go a long way in restoring faith among Oregon citizens that the system is not open to abuse.