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UnEthics bill expected to pass the House

SALEM -- The Legislature is on the verge of allowing lobbyists to treat relatives of public officials to all-expenses paid trips when accompanying them on public business.
Ethics bill expected to pass the House


SALEM -- The Legislature is on the verge of allowing lobbyists to treat relatives of public officials to all-expenses paid trips when accompanying them on public business.
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The bill, which could receive final approval today, would also allow public officials and their relatives to accept unlimited gifts from individuals with no perceived legislative or administrative interest. And it could ease policies regarding the personal use of public-owned cell phones, frequent flier miles and other taxpayer-paid benefits.

Supporters of House Bill 3328 say several years of high-profile cases illustrate a heavy-handed, inflexible state ethics commission whose rules butt up against rights of free speech. The result, they say, has been firefighters who can't bring spouses to banquets and volunteer public officials embarrassed by legal advice that conflicted with the commission's interpretation.

They're backed by at least one favorable court ruling. Rep. Linda Flores, R-Boring, said the bill simply codifies a decision by a Marion County Circuit Court judge, who ruled in 2001 that the state ethics commission improperly dinged three Republican legislators for allowing a beer and wine lobbyist to pay for their wives to accompany them to conferences in Hawaii and California.

A second case drawn into the debate involves former state school Superintendent Stan Bunn, who was accused by the ethics commission of misusing state telephones and a state car for personal use.

"Ultimately, it's not what a government agency or courts should do to a public official who may be taking advantage of a system like this," said Rep. Dan Doyle, R-Salem, "but instead, it's up to voters to make decisions on whether they want this individual to represent them."

Opponents, however, criticize the proposed changes to the Government Standards and Practices Commission -- the agency that monitors the ethical conduct of 200,000 public employees in Oregon, ranging from the governor to county firefighters -- as a violation of public trust.

They see the bill as another hit this session on a commission that has rankled some legislators in the past with its investigations. Last week, the Legislature approved a budget that would force the agency to reduce its work force to one part-time and two full-time employees in 2003-05. It started the 2001-03 budget cycle with four full-time employees.

HB3328 unexpectedly failed in the House by one vote Monday, after an earlier version with the same basic provisions had overwhelmingly cleared the House. But several supporters weren't present, so a revote was called -- possibly for today -- and the bill's sponsors said they will be better prepared for opposition.

If the bill clears the House, it moves to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who is expected to sign it. "For the most part, it clarifies what the law really was intended to be," said MardiLyn Saathoff, the governor's general counsel.

But Rep. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, who opposed HB3328 both times, said the Legislature could have clarified the court decision so that family members could not receive gifts.

"I find it tremendously troublesome," Merkley said. "This is a powerfully corrupting factor and quite different from (lobbyists) paying for an extra dinner. They could have put a cap in this bill."

Public officials are allowed to accept free public business-related trips, but the ethics commission had ruled that family members were subject to the $100 annual limit rule when taking gifts from people with interest in legislative or administrative matters.

Practice not widespread Peggy Kerns, who heads the ethics center at the National Conference of State Legislators, said in general, allowing relatives to score free trips from lobbyists and other interest groups "is not done in many states."

"The obvious reason for this is just for the perception, the impropriety of it," Kerns said. "If a lobbyist group gives a large, significant donation to a legislator, how does that look to the public?"

Generally, HB3328 tightens some restrictions and loosens other issues raised in high-profile cases against public officials.

Proposed changes include requiring paid lobbyists to register with the state within a strictly enforced five days of signing with a client; allowing the commission to issue a reprimand letter instead of a civil penalty; and allowing cities, counties and state rules to outline policies governing the use of public cell phones and other work-related property.

Last year, the commission charged Bunn, the state schools superintendent, with 1,433 ethics violations stemming from improper use of state-owned cell phones and a car. Bunn lost his bid for re-election in 2002 and later agreed to a settlement with the state.

The bill also would allow public officials and their relatives to receive unlimited gifts from individuals who don't have a legislative or administrative interest, such as restaurant owners who want to thank firefighters with a discounted meal.

That provision would get trickier with individuals, for example, who give gifts to legislators and later find themselves before the same lawmaker on a particular bill.

"Hopefully, that won't be abused down the line," said Janice Thompson, executive director of the Portland-based Money in Politics Research Action Project, a campaign money-tracking group that generally supports the bill.

Opposition to bill a surprise Flores, who worked on the bill, said she expects it to pass with the revote. Several Republicans joined Democrats to defeat it, and some members were off the floor at the time.

"I didn't expect there would be such rampant opposition since it had been thoroughly vetted," Flores said.

The Senate tweaked the original proposal slightly -- for example, it extended the timeline for investigations -- and approved it 24-5 last week.

Ethics commissioners have said they would adjust to the proposed changes, although a more pressing issue for them and other government watchdog groups is the reduced work force.

Andi Miller, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, said her nonprofit watchdog group will press the governor to form a task force to evaluate alternate money sources as well as the duties of the ethics commission. Miller said she and others were shut out of the unpublicized work group meetings that produced HB3328.

"This bill in itself is not the end of the Earth, but it's a leak in the dike," she said. "It's a good indication of what goes on in the end and what gets sacrificed in the name of winding up."

Another blow to the peoples that try every day to live a decent life and raise a family...