Rep. Dennis Richardson: Using Public Records to Become Oregon's Newest Spam King

Rep. Dennis Richardson: Using Public Records to Become Oregon's Newest Spam King

By Scott Moore of Portland, Oregon. Scott is the Communications Director for Our Oregon and was a political reporter and news editor for the Portland Mercury. Previously, he contributed Trivial Pursuit: That's Some Har-ible Reporting.

From Portland to Medford, State Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Your Inbox) is getting blasted for his latest scheme: Exploiting Oregon’s public records laws in order to get his hands on hundreds of thousands of Oregonians’ personal email addresses and then sending them political spam.

Richardson filed public records requests with state agencies seeking the email addresses (and other contact info) of employees as well as anyone who has business with those agencies.

The result? Richardson got his mitts on at least 480,000 email addresses, and probably many more. He filed public records requests with numerous agencies, boards, and commissions, including the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Department of Education, and reportedly even the Oregon Board of Massage Therapists.

The emails included addresses of employees, clients, stakeholders, newsletter subscribers, vendors, and on and on. If you’ve ever given your email address to a state agency or commission for any reason--even just to sign up for a newsletter--you’re probably now on Dennis Richardson’s email list.

To give you some idea of how many email addresses that is: If Richardson’s new email list was a city, it’d be the second largest city in Oregon.

Richardson’s actions are a clear abuse and exploitation of the state’s public records laws. These laws are designed to protect against corruption and to make government more transparent and accountable. The fact that a politician has exploited public records in order to build up his political spam list is an outrage.

Richardson is the Republican co-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the state budget. He’s used that position to advocate for policies that would force deeper cuts to schools and critical human services. Surprise, surprise—that’s the kind of platform his new unwitting followers are now being bombarded with.

Some people, including employees at nonprofit organizations, have already started receiving Richardson’s emails, starting with a politically loaded one-question “survey” about the state budget. That was followed by a long newsletter filled with political rhetoric about the need to cut the budget. He’s even using the list to promote the Oregon Transformation Project, a group he runs with state GOP chair Allen Alley that also has a Political Action Committee. Worse, Richardson has revealed that he’s sharing the survey responses with the Transformation Project.

In short, here’s what we’ve got: A politician exploiting the state’s public records in order to obtain contact info for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, who he’s now spamming with political emails. And now that he has these addresses, there’s nothing stopping him from using them for his own legislative campaign or sharing them with other groups, like the Transformation Project or the Oregon GOP.

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    I got spammed by this idiot. He must be running for "worst person" award. I can't figure out why he spammed me. I'm retired. Used to work for a non-profit. I'm nobody with any connections other than that.

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    This is far worse than somebody sending out a bunch of unwanted email. This is a massive data breach of state government data.

    It's also a privacy lawsuit waiting to happen.

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      I wonder. From the linked Statesman-Journal article of 1/31:

      "Email addresses are not protected from disclosure by public records law and their release is not considered an unreasonable invasion of privacy by the Oregon Department of Justice, which oversees the public records process, spokes-man Tony Green said.

      ""Frankly, email addresses are widely disseminated by people. It's not something we generally feel meets that test," Green said. "You can just delete an unwanted email. We all get a significant number of unwanted emails, and you can either delete them or block them.""

      This "massive data breach" seems to have taken place in conformance with state public records laws.

      I get more worked up about lack of public email contacts for some public officials than about receiving more spam. Right now there are no public individual email addresses for the members of the Oregon Education Investment Board that is designing Oregon's educational future.

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    This will be an interesting debate going forward. My guess is that it will blow back on the Republicans. People hate robo calls and the DCCC mailing about who had voted got a big negative response. This seems worse.

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      Have 'em file complaints with they get lots of complaints maybe they will penalize the legislature for allowing the spam.

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    The members of the Association of Engineering Employees of Oregon (AEE) were also very upset by this, and we immediately contacted the SoS office about it. They told us that Richardson didn't violate the law because it wasn't campaign related. That doesn't mean that thousands of state workers, their spouses, contractors to the state, and pretty much anyone who does business with the state don't feel like their privacy has been violated.

    Joelle Davis Co-Executive Director, AEE

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    Thank you for reporting on this. When I received his email, I wondered how he added me to his list, but just kind of figured I'm on everybody's list by now. I didn't care much for his one question survey, so didn't bother writing up a response. Thank you Scott for looking more deeply into this, so that something can be done.

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    I appreciate the thrust of your argument with concern to privacy, but don't we (Democrats) use similar public records laws to gather the phone number of every voter that the state has on record (>2million?), store them in a database, and "spam" many of them with Get Out The Vote phone calls which, as any campaign volunteer will attest, can cause far more rage than a few spam emails ever could?

    A fair comparison? Why or why not?

    Also, I was under the impression that someone must opt-in to being placed on a mass email list. Is that true and has that happened in this case?

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      Actually, Justin, Democrats don't use "public records laws" to gather private phone numbers. We use public phone numbers, and landlines only because we don't want to charge people minutes.

      Second, and more importantly, research has shown that by and large, most people like being contacted via phone by the party that they are a member of. The trick is to understand when enough is enough, but that's been improved as well.

      I'm a volunteer myself, and will tell you by personal experience that this is true. Most of the issues I've had on the phone are with husbands or boyfriends who strongly disagree with the political inclinations of the wives or girlfriends, but there's really not much you can do about that.

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        Not to quibble, but your understanding of how we collect phone numbers is incorrect. The database that the State Party maintains is an extension of the Secretary of State’s voter records. We are allowed to access their records due to public records laws. The information we collect includes the phone number of anyone who provided it on his or her voter registration card. We use these same procedures to collect individuals’ addresses, party affiliations, and voting histories.

        Perhaps WashCo Dems have a unique policy for their phone banks, but in general we do not exclude cell phones or non-listed phone numbers when determining who to call. We are able to determine which phone numbers are cell phones because certain area codes and relays are unique to cell phone numbers, but I’m not sure there is a convenient way to exclude non-listed phone numbers as I doubt the Secretary of State distinguishes them when providing records and they don’t carry any unique identifiers.

        As for your second point, I’m in agreement that many voters like hearing from their party. However, that wasn’t my point. I was referring to the lauded GOTV phone banking our party engages in over the last week of any given campaign. During that time we are not exclusively calling Democrats. We call anyone we presume is likely to vote for us. These determinations are made using a combination of public and private data. Frankly, we call these people until we are told by the Secretary of State that they have in fact voted (again, public records). By the end of Election Day, if the SOS has not confirmed that a voter has cast their ballot, they might have received upwards of 10 phone calls and sometimes 4 or 5 in a day. While this practice is the reason we win close elections (i.e. Kitz), it’s also upsetting for many voters. This was the comparison I was making.

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    While the email included a survey, it was sent by - a provider of email broadcasting services to government agencies.

    Here's what GovDelivery says it's policies include:

    Confirm permission: GovDelivery automatically sends confirmation emails to subscribers whenever a new profile is created or changes are made to an existing profile. This automated step ensures agencies and departments work within the increasingly strict standards imposed by “block” listers.

    Adhere to federally mandated CAN-SPAM email compliance standards: GovDelivery dedicates significant resources to staying up-to-date on current email laws to ensure its clients are compliant, taking on the complete responsibility of monitoring ever-changing anti-spam regulations.

    Rep. Richardson clearly did not get permission from 480,000 individuals prior to emailing them all.

    And the initial email that went out violated the CAN-SPAM law's requirement of a clearly identifiable opt-out link. (The second email did include one.)

    GovDelivery's customer service line is 866-276-5583.

    • (Show?) won't do anything. Here's their response to me:

      Dear Sir,

      Thank you for your email and concern.

      Our policy is as follows:

      · Our public sector clients make their own determination as to which contact information to use within our system

      · We require that clients make a reasonable effort to honor unsubscribe requests and we allow anyone to get on a universal “unsubscribe” list within our system; we provide technology to make this process as easy as possible for all involved.

      · We encourage clients to include the contact information, address and unsubscribe information within the body of the email

      There is commonly some confusion around the CAN-SPAM law. The law does not apply in any way to emails coming from the public sector or elected officials. It is related to “unsolicited commercial email.”

      If you have concerns about the contact management policies of a particular office or individual, we encourage you to contact them directly. If you or anyone you know would like to unsubscribe from any agency or office email outreach list, please feel free to do that online or contact us at [email protected] where we can also take you off all of the outreach lists we manage if you so desire.

      Please contact me with any further questions.

      Thank you,

      Scott Burns, CEO, GovDelivery

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        Surveymonkey's policy is clear: zero tolerance to sending their survey. "SurveyMonkey has a zero-tolerance spam policy. This means that all email recipients must have opted in to, or otherwise validly consented to, receiving communications from you, the sender." linked above.

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          So, in other words, Surveymonkey has a policy, which they don't enforce and don't care if anyone flagrantly violates it. Sweet.

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            No, I don't think that's right. Remember, didn't send this out -- they wouldn't have had advance notice.

            A Portland company, they almost certainly are aware of it by now. But folks should certainly complain to them so that they've got hard complaints that they can use to boot the customer.

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        Wow. I was having trouble finding any information on about their membership in the Electronic Sender & Provider Coalition or other industry trade groups.

        I guess we know why now.

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    So does this mean every other pol in Oregon can just public records request Richardson and get all these emails?

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    Richardson has been untouchable because he is smart and is in constant campaign mode. This time he seriously stepped in it with his bone headed decision to solicit ways to cut the state budget from state employees. His decision speaks volumes about his belief that he (with the input of state employees - if he actually colates the data) can solve Oregon's budget problems. Sadly, he never deals with the boom bust nature of state funding or offers real solutions.

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      Ain't nothing wrong with asking state employees for their advice on managing state resources.

      It's that he spammed them at home.

      And, by the way, far more people than just state employees got this email.

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        I agree, nothing wrong with asking state employees for their feedback. (IMO, not necessary if agency management asked them regularly and actually listened.) But the truth is some agencies really DO NOT want their staff talking to anyone at the legislature, without running it by them first. And some staff have gotten their hands slapped or written up, even when they didn't violate any laws. Any wonder there's apathy or cynicism among some staff?

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    I got the email. I like having elected officials asking for input and reading their opinions. I sent in some ideas. Doubt the transformation project will like them all.

    I thought it was interesting that the email indicated that there was a revenue problem, and they pretty much cut as much as they could, and had to ask people on the street for input.

    It almost seemed to me like he was setting the table for a pivot to tax reform.

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      Are we reading the same document? The email specially noted that the Rebalance Plan fills the budget hole "without raising taxes and fees," and talked about Oregon's "profligate spending practices."

      That doesn't feel like much of a pivot to me.

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    I'm a private citizen and I didn't ask for this self-promoting spam from Dennis Richardson using govt. resources. I am not his constituent either.

    I wrote to the address provided by Chuck. They asked for a copy of the e-mail he sent. I hope they actually intend to do something to enforce their own rules.

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      I did get two emails, so maybe we were talking about differnent ones.

      The first one, the one I was referencing, had a large graph at the top showing how revenues had declined since March 08. The text below said that revenues had declined, you can only squeeze agency budgets so much, then asked for suggestions on streamlining and efficiencies.

      I thought the message was....we've seen a huge reduction in revenues. We can't just reduce budgets pro rata anymore, PLEASE give us some ideas

      Now if Rep. Richardson doesn't have any more ideas on cuts, doesn't that leave you with revenue? Or, maybe he's simply trying to set up the choice between revenue and entire programs. Which I think is a good discussion to have. Though he and I probably disagree on what people will conclude.

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    Just got my second piece of spam from the Rep. This time I wrote him back letting him know I don't appreciate it. Apparently the Oregon State Bar was one of the groups so "mined" for email data.

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