Government ethics and corruption in Oregon

Pat Hearn, who was the head of Oregon's ethics commission, is leaving town to run Nevada's watchdog agency. On his way out the door, he suggests some reforms for Oregon in a Willamette Week interview:

What changes would you make, if you could, to state ethics law? Right now, Oregon law permits public officials to receive a gift or gifts up to a value of a hundred dollars in a calendar year from a source that has an economic interest distinct from that of the public. But there are some exclusions to that hundred-dollar limit. One is food and beverage without limit when consumed in the presence of the purchaser or provider. That was enacted solely to enable legislators and lobbyists to dine together without any limitation. There's another exemption for entertainment that says you can have a gift or gifts of entertainment provided the value doesn't exceed a hundred dollars per occasion, or two hundred and fifty dollars in a calendar year. That was enacted specifically to enable lobbyists to take legislators to Blazer games. I don't think it's ethical, in the broad sense, for that kind of gratuitous relationship to exist.

Any other changes? I think penalties need to be increased. The civil penalty for a violation has been $1,000 for 30 years. Many states are at least $5,000 or $10,000. Where I'm going in Nevada is one of the two highest in the country, and it can be up to $25,000.

He also leaves behind this cryptic remark:

Some people claim there's little or no serious corruption in Oregon. How do you respond to that? I don't want to suggest that Oregon is an extremely corrupt state, but let me answer it this way. We expect there to be corruption in places like New Jersey and Chicago. But corruption is an element of human behavior. And I don't think human behavior recognizes any geographical boundary. So I think it's almost pompous of Oregonians to think that if it happens in these other places, it's not happening here either. It may be that we just don't know about it because we don't have the resources to know about it.


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    His final comment isn't cryptic at all to me. Philosophically, he sees human beings as inherently corrupt, and so is suspicious that he hasn't found more corruption in Oregon. To account for the facts on the ground, he hints darkly that the corruption must still be there, he just hasn't been able to find it because he doesn't have the resources.

    While I agree that an anti-corruption officer should be inherently suspicious, I simply don't agree with his assessment of human nature. Humans are amazingly malleable animals, and culture has a profound impact on what we do and do not find acceptable. This goes for corruption as well. In many deveoping world cultures still under the thrall of feudalism - and among many feudalistic Republicans - stealing from the public is completely acceptable; self-dealing is just seen as one of the natural privileges of rank. Among modern day liberals, it's not. Which is one reason why classic liberal countries rank so high on the Corruption Perception Index.

    Is this arrogant? No, it's simply realistic.

  • John Capardoe (unverified)

    "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely

    An observation that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. The statement was made by Lord Acton, a British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."

    Just as we are all seeing RED at what is happening nationally on the national scene, don't kid yourself that the BLUE power here in Portland isn't leaving the people equally bruised (Black & Blue).

    PDC's version of Economic Development is just as absurd for the common working folk as Trickle Down Economics of the right.

    You only have to look at Portland's declining average wage to figure that one out, and don't kid yourself on the other side of the coin as pointed out by Jaquiss in the WW article on 3rd and OAK "Suite Deal" is alive and well making deals like that.

  • Sponge (unverified)

    I don't think it's about the prevalence of evil and corruption as much as it is about the natural human tendency to cut corners. The rules are there to keep the honest people honest, and provide the mechanism to hammer the true miscreants. Many of the complaints this office gets come from citizens who are unhappy with the decisions their elected officials make and simply want somebody to put the fear of God into them. A large number of the complaints also deal with issues surrounding open meetings law violations. Much of that could be avoided, as Mr. Hearn has commented, by better training of local councils and boards. I do agree that his office is seriously underfunded and should be disconnected from the politics of the state budget process.

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    I think we all need to distinguish between political disagreement and corruption. Some people think the Portland Development Commission goes too far with their incentives trying to attract new development (which they may), but that's not the same thing as them being on the take. Self-dealing isn't just "cutting corners". It's selling your power to people who have money, abusing it at the expense of the people you're supposed to be serving.

    Now if the PDC handed out freebies to developers in the same way as Republicans give out "no bid" contracts, with the implicit agreement to get a nice multi-million dollar salary when they're out of office, then it would be different. But as it is - the charge of "corruption" is very strained. You'd be better served by simply using the words "ill advised", "wasteful", and "a poor use of taxpayer dollars".

    With all due respect to Lord Acton, I think we should also keep in mind a different observation on human nature made by Napoleon: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adaquately explained by stupidity".

  • John Capradoe (unverified)

    Lest we forget, Steve

    I think this commentor to the WW "outing" of Neil said it better than I could. Yes I see Red at the Repubs, but the Blues have plenty of Black as well and don't kid yourself they have plenty of no bid or "wired" contracts to hand out.

    Follow the Money, there is much more to know Let us see, hmmm? Prominent lawyer mayor head of large U.S. city repeatedly rapes a 14 year old over three years, engages in an alleged conspiricy to cover up his crime so that he can remain in his quest for more public power as governor and business insider so that he can make millions of dollars. The Oregonian just happens to publish a public admonishment of the WW by Burtchaell, who allegedly is involved in the conspiricy to cover up the crime of Goldy and he himself who has hansomely profited from the whole criminal cover up. Why? Follow the money, there is much more to this story that will shortly unfold. Posted by "Zeke" | Wed, May 12 2004

  • John Capradoe (unverified)


    I do need to say that I have run into many find an dedicated people in government as well as in the political parties, and they are usually very much underappreciated. Darlene Hooley is a woman I really admire and was such an improvement over the R she replaced. Tom McCall did so much for our state as an R. I am sure McCall was not perfect, but he didn't rape little girls. But often times the good people get stabbed in the back by the corrupt ones who are not operating on any established value system. You wonder how many good people got disgusted and left politics with the Bush and Clinton role models.

  • Jerry (unverified)

    Steven: You need to become familar with PDC's Amendment 8 of North Macadam Agreement. Examine the Block 49 portion of the Amendment and you'll discover a "no bid" clause regarding Homer Williams/Dames. They are the exclusive developers for affordable housing on the site. Corruption isn't a democrate vs. republican issue. Many more examples exist in PDC agreements and elsewhere in Portland's agencies.

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    Frankly, my observation is that Northwesteners have a very immature sense of what corruption is in government. Directly taking money for favors, and variants thereof, is really the most trivial form of corruption in the real world, part of the civic immaturity here is the failure to understand that. By the standards applicable in many jurisdictions, Oregon and Washington have a high level of corruption, and many people who find their way into positions of influence and their supporters have lower than average ethical standards. Steve Maurer's rather simplistic and uniformed concept of corruption is an example (but Maurer frequently shoots off his keyboard in ways that show he is more full of BS than wisdom.)

    The fundamental problem in the NW is much of what would be corrupt in other places for good reason, and as result of experience, is actually built into ordinances and laws as being permitted here. We have actually legalized what more mature jurisdictions recognize to be inimical to good government, arguably because we have more of a "If I want to do it, I should be able to" mentality here. And in what is even a more foreign concept here, in many places (including the federal court system), the actionable ethical standards for officials include failure to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. This is just one standard by which the PDC in many cases, and almost by definition, is a corrupt institution.

    Another practice which actually is becoming more widely accepted in the NW, but which is coming more and more into question in places where the people in government and the constituency actually have a clue, is the practice of government entities signing NDAs with private corporations to shield information that the public legitiamtely has a right to know, and that otherwise would be disclosable under public records laws. As we've seen right in this blog in the PDC/PDX - MetroFi deal and the Oregon - Genentech deal, a lot of people have no clue why insitutionalizing this practice is inherently corrupting of government.

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    askquestions1st: Steve Maurer's rather simplistic and uniformed concept of corruption is an example (but Maurer frequently shoots off his keyboard in ways that show he is more full of BS than wisdom.)

    Speaking of insightful quotes on human nature, here's one of my own: "Fools never admit they've lost an argument, so when they lose one, they resort to hurling insults". I can hardly think of a more appropriate example.

    The problem with using the word "corrption" to mean "any political decision I don't like", is that you deprive the word of all meaning. It quickly becomes just another expression that extremist whack-jobs on both ends of the political spectrum use to express their alienation with sane society (and each other) - "You're corrupt!" "No! YOU and your ILK are!" "No YOU" "Corrupt corrupt corrupt!!!".

    The same goes for using "corruption" to describe generic criminal acts concealed from the public. Should rape merely be described as sexual "corruption"? So we all can avoid using that unfortunate word "rape" now? ("That poor 14 year old; learning as such a young age about corruption".) Maybe some people think so, but not I.

    Finally, I would argue that "corruption" really is intertwined with economics. Money can't be separated from it. Kim Jong-il does indeed rape women and underage girls at his whim (this is euphamistically described in diplomatic circles as him being a "playboy"), and no one can stop him. But the word that best describes him is "evil murderous tyrant", not merely "corrupt leader".

    Regardless of the lexography, the underlying truth is that in some societies, certain practices are tolerated. In India, giving money to "fixers" will get you a drivers license without you ever having to take a driving test. In Washington DC there's a well known - unapoligetically admitted - "revolving door" between Republican political offices and high priced K-Street lobbying firms, and government contract firms of every cut and stripe (Halliburton being only one example of many). It's pay to play.

    Call that "smugglefarkalism" if you want. But we simply don't have that openly practiced here in the Northwest.

  • John Capradoe (unverified)


    My problem with your argument is that you don't recognize that the "revolving door" of the Goldscmidt Law offices are the same as those you describe on K-street, and that you don't seem compelled to solve the local problem as well as the national one.

  • Marvin McConoughey (unverified)

    Corruption has many meanings, but what concerns me is the widespread difficulty of finding facts. The Oregon public records law, once one of the nation's strongest, now is riddled with protections, loopholes, and exceptions, in addition to some that are essential. What seems a very open public records system proves on application to be difficult to access. The problem is not in finding out what authorities are content to have one find out. The iron curtain becomes apparent when one seeks information that might not reflect well on an agency or on functionaries within the agency. My most recent experience was asking a public body for the cost of a contract that it had agreed to. I was informed that the contract was agreed upon in a meeting closed to the public and that the cost would not be released. At least one knowledgeable reviewer agrees that the public officials had a right to keep the cost concealed from the public. Years of experience have shown that nearly every request I have made under the public records law encountered resistance, delay, or outright denial.

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    Point granted, John. I can only say in my defense that I never described the Northwest as being perfectly free of corruption. Only that it is significantly less than much of what we see elsewhere. If all you're saying is that we need to keep it that way, I can only agree.

    What I can't agree with, is the idea that we can ever "solve" the problem of corruption. Real corruption (as opposed to politicians you don't like) doesn't go away by passing a law or winning an election. It's more a cultural issue than anything, that needs to be worked on constantly.

    That's why I'm so adamant that "corruption" doesn't just become just another dumbed-down meaningless political epithet. One of the easiest ways to foster corruption is to push the lie that that everyone is corrupt.

    That's what Republicans - caught repeatedly stealing from the public purse - are trying to do right now in this election cycle. They want to tar clean Democrats with the same brush. And some Greens and disaffected socialists, who hate Democrats even more than Republicans do, are more than happy to let them. But it simply isn't true.

    Sure, Democrats have our bad apples. William Jefforson comes immediately to mind. But when we find out about it, we do something right away.

    Insofar as Goldschidt's law office is concerned, I'm not at all sure the situations are comparable. Setting aside the horrific rape concealed from the public, did Goldschmidt funnel tons of cash to his own law firm when he was Governor? After he left his government post, should he be diallowed from making a living practicing law? And if his "law" firm is really a "lobbying" firm, how far can we go in restricting that before tripping over the First Amendment?

    Again it's not legalities we're dealing with here. It's culture. I'll heed your warning about not becoming too sanguine about corruption in Oregon, if you heed mine that abusing the charge of corruption only brings more of it. If we all agree that there can be plenty of honest idiot Republicans, as clean as they are stupid, I'll be happy.

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    Maurer - You prove once again to demonstrate the example of too many people who post here who mistake the form of argument for substance. Plus engage in just a little fallacious argumentation.

    No one made any argument defining "corrption" to mean "any political decision I don't like". A re-read of the previous posts suggests that this is your own strawman argument, which is used as a springboard to discourse about subjects that have nothing to do with corruption as it has to do with acts by government officials that would be covered by ethics laws.

    Furthermore, specific arguments were made rooted in ethics law and practice around the nation. Marvin McConoughy addresses the point about how the PDC and other interested parties have worked to institutionalize the gutting of our public records law. This is a component of a culture of corruption that is at least at bad in the NW as anywhere else, in large part because collectively we actually have very stunted understanding of ethics here.

    And BS is too mild a term for your bizarre argument that starts with "point granted" in an attempt to get past the substance of an contrary argument actually dealing with corruption by someone who has the facts on their side, followed by a non sequitor strawman argument that deals with all manner of civil and criminally actionable misconduct by officials including uninterpretable comments about rape.

    What are you possibly trying to argue here that has any actual connection to ethics laws and corruption in government?

  • John Capardoe (unverified)

    The sad offshoot of this is that people are becoming disconnected with their government and the democratic process. As the parent of a young woman, it makes my skin crawl to think of her as an intern in the White House during the Clinton era or Packwood's Senate office learning about politics.

    You may be right Steven, technically, but many folks like myself in our gut feel there is a very real ethical problem and worry the directon we are headed.

  • Chuck Paugh (unverified)

    For the most part, Oregon is a one party (Democratic) state, and just like other one party states (Indiana with Republican control) corruption will happen.

    When one party controls the overwhelming majority in the state, no one really wants to vote for the opposing party no matter how corrupt they know the sitting politician to be because they do not wish to give the opposing party a foothold in the state.

    I think that is the case in Oregon. I am a Democrat. I support the Democratic Party. However, our politicians in Oregon have become complacent and elitest in attitude believing they have no one to answer to because voters would never allow themselves to vote for a Republican -- you see this attitude in the governor's office but even more so in the Portland mayor's office.

    What's the solution? Since we are basically a one party state, we've got to allow ourselves to have a more aggressive primary for these offices. Sure, there is a chance that information could come out of these primaries that a Republican candidate could use as ammunition against the Democratic opponent, but I think the risk is minimal.

    If we want a state operated by politicians who work for the voters, then the voters have got to make the politicians accountable. In states with strong parties on both sides of the aisle, politicians are quick to address constituent concerns. In one party states such as Oregon, you will instead get a nice pat on the head, the politician will do nothing, and you'll get shoved to the corner. Such as Mayor Tom Potter's office with Jeremy Van Keuren (Mayor's Office Public Advocate) who replies to every correspondance to the mayor's office with, "The mayor isn't concerned about this issue and will not act accordingly. Have a nice day."

    <h2>This is avoidable with strong primaries weeding out the leeches. Kulongoski has not been good for Oregon. Potter has not been good for Portland. Many of our state legislators have been social vampires. Unless the Democratic Party steps up with strong primaries to weed out these people, then corruption will continue -- and with the large number of people moving into Oregon, you will see more and more Democratic strongholds lost to Republicans because the Democratic Party refused to weed out the weak link in a strong primary.</h2>
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