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.