Crimes of a few hurt all elected officials

By Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego & SW Portland).

Crimes by elected officials, admitted or alleged, have made news recently. U.S. Representative Tom DeLay (R-Texas), former Oregon Representative Dan Doyle (R-Salem), and Oregon Representative Kelly Wirth (D- Corvallis) all have captured headlines.

As state representative for Lake Oswego and Southwest Portland, I find these events troubling because they bring disrepute on all elected representatives. A cynical public imagines widespread wrongdoing.

The DeLay, Doyle, and Wirth cases stand in stark contrast with the behavior of most elected officials. And each of those cases is different.

Congressman Tom DeLay has been indicted for conspiracy to funnel corporate contributions to candidates for the Texas legislature in violation of state campaign laws. The alleged crime aided the shift in partisan control of the Texas legislature that led to redrawing the Congressional districts in 2003, outside the normal process that occurs just once every ten years based on the census. After that shift, Republicans won five more seats in the U.S. House than they held previously.

I recognize that Congressman DeLay is fighting the charges, claiming he’ll be acquitted. But, if proven, his crime is the most serious of the three cases because it was aimed at subverting the processes we depend on for fair elections.

Rep. Dan Doyle was sentenced to ten months in prison last week. He previously had pleaded guilty to filing false campaign reports, concealing the diversion of over $146,000 in political contributions to personal living expenses.

Rep. Doyle’s admitted crime is serious. But, unlike the charge against DeLay, it amounts to personal dishonesty, not a subversion of the electoral process. To his credit, Rep. Doyle has taken responsibility for his crime and is paying a heavy price.

Rep. Kelly Wirth is resigning her seat in the Oregon House after a small quantity of methamphetamine was found in her car. The search occurred after a woman intentionally rammed her with a car due to an alleged affair between Rep. Wirth and the woman’s boyfriend. Rep. Wirth, seriously injured by the woman, has been booked on suspicion of meth possession.

By contrast with the crimes alleged against DeLay and admitted by Doyle, Rep. Wirth’s suspected crime is purely personal. It has no bearing on her official duties. With her resignation, the matter should move out of the public spotlight.

Crimes involving elected officials grab headlines. But we should look beyond the spectacle for concerns that should affect public policy. Two points about these cases should be noted.

First, Congressman DeLay is accused of conspiring to launder campaign contributions by corporations, which are prohibited under Texas law. Corporate contributions are entirely legal in Oregon. In other words, if DeLay had done the same thing in Oregon, it would not have been a crime.

Second, Rep. Doyle’s crime was covering up his personal use of campaign funds, not the use itself. Some Oregon legislators use campaign funds to pay for restaurant meals, rent, and other personal expenses, even when they are also receiving a per diem for living expenses from the state. As long as those payments are included in campaign reports, they’re legal.

In the 2005 session, the Oregon legislature passed campaign finance reforms. But the DeLay and Doyle cases show we have more work to do.

Comments

  • Aubrey Russell (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Greg,

    I am puzzled by the tone of your piece. I would tend to be more critical of those who 1.) violate the law, and 2.) do so after placing themselves in postions of high public responsibility. My feeling is that the public would have greater trust in elected officials if there was a more rigorous (even raucous) accounting among politicians for those in their midst who break laws, act dishonestly, etc. Instead, it often seems that parties close ranks to protect their own, or avoid open criticism in order to avoid charges of oportunism.

    I appreciate the factual aspect of your piece, but your conclusion that progress is still needed in campaign finance reform distracts us from what I think is a more urgent (and relevant) debate about the quality of people serving in public office. If we cannot openly and roughly criticize public servants for dishonesty AND violation of laws then how are we to uphold high standards? Instead, your piece points out that DeLay would not have violated the law had the law been different, and that although Doyle was acting criminally in one respect, he was not not acting criminally in another.

    One especially troubling aspect of the Doyle case-- in my view-- is what distinguishes it from the Wirth case: that Doyle had been raised to a position of high responsibility (Chair of the Ways and Means Committee)within his own party. What that says about the Republicans who control the Oregon House is troubling. A party that does not have a sense of the character of those it promotes to its highest ranks is not warry enough of the public backlash that SHOULD accompany dishonesty and criminal behavior.

    I could have made the same point about Bill Sizemore a few years ago, or about Tom DeLay today.

    Finally, I agree with the need for more laws (campaign finance reform)to police ethical behavior, but I think that your concern about the "disrepute" of elected officials would be better addressed by selecting for ethical character through loud and punishing condemnation of lawmakers who can't abide by the law. I think that the public would have more repect for an institution that expresses more than polite regret over those who violate the public trust.

    --Aubrey Russell

  • (Show?)

    Rep Macpherson-- Thank you for submitting your column to Blue Oregon and participating in the state blogger community. It is another welcome sign that I (and many others) did the right thing in voting for you last year.

    I appreciate your sense of priority and analysis regarding the different infractions by different politicians; I think you have the order and considerations right. However, I wonder what purposeful point you had beyond worrying that you might find yourself tarred by association among your constituency. If it is an endorsement of tighter control in Oregon over the connection between politics and money, it's quite a case of burying the lede!

    Assuming that was at least part of your intent, can you perhaps describe in comments the most important steps that can be taken in the next session to reduce the taint of fiduciary malfeasance? Since your district includes part of the City of Portland, what is your opinion on "Voter-owned elections" as passed by Council? Do you feel that if the program is successful at the City level, that it would be worth exploring statewide? What about nonpartisan legislative elections? (Since you were the nominee for BOTH parties in last year's contest, this seems like a no-risk effort for you!)

    As a member of the progressive blogging community and a constituent of your district, I would enjoy the opportunity to speak with you on this and other topics, as part of the outreach program developing within the House Democratic caucus. I am happy to coordinate with Jon Isaacs, or have you contact me directly at the linked address.

    Thanks--

  • askquestions1st (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Let see, Macpherson writes: "Rep. Kelly Wirth is resigning her seat in the Oregon House after a small quantity of methamphetamine was found in her car". He then links Wirth to DeLay and Doyle. I'll leave it to him to counter with a Clintonesque parsing of his text that he isn't implying that he has judged the case, but that he is just making a politically popular albeit weak case for campaign finance reform if he so chooses.

    So what are the only facts in this case?

    • The State Police leaked the story to the press several days before they also said the investigation was at a stage they couldn't answer direct questions from the press...

    • The OSP claims to have found meth but said it would be 5-6 weeks before the tests were back confirming whatever they may have found was meth, 3-4 weeks after they leaked the story ..

    • The OSP claimed the search of a victim's car was "standard" procedure but as of today the warrant still remains sealed, even though it has been served and executed, thanks mainly to the refusal of the tabloid press including the Statesman Journal, the Oregonian, and the Gazette-Times to pursue legitimate legal action to force them to release the warrant and then investigate the substance of the allegations in the warrant ...

    • The car was in OSP possession for 6 days before the search, and not in Wirth's control, making a possession case dubious at best ...

    • Wirth is served publicly with a restraining order alleging, without any proof since no proof is required to get a restraining order, that she drove a white truck to the accuser's house 5 weeks after both her legs were severely damaged in the attack ...

    • Wirth pleads "Not Guilty" today.

    Wirth may be guilty, but that is not the issue here. What happened to due process? What happened to a skeptical press in the face of an inconsistent story by the government? And what is progressive about a blog that has excitedly gossiped right along with this?

    With "friends" like Kulongski, who in effect declared Wirth guilty the day the leaked story hit the press and said she should quit, Reps. Merkley and Rosenbaum who played some role in writing a "resignation letter" leaked to the press and also made statements to the press she should resign, to Rep. Macpherson who links Wirth to the DeLay and Doyle cases where the facts are not in dispute (in the DeLay case only the law is in dispute), good Democrats and progressives in Oregon surely don't need any enemies.

    And Mr. Russell, opining about character without addressing the behavior of all parties involved in the Wirth case which speaks to the character of the other officials involved does raise legitimate questions about the substance of your argument.

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