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Saturday, February 10, 2007

A fine reputation

Senators pay $4.20 to settle entertainment controversy

SALEM - Two Oregon senators who failed to report lobbyist-paid, out-of-state entertainment have agreed to pay a total of $4.20 in fines to settle an investigation of ethics law violations.

The state ethics commission will vote Friday in secret session on whether to approve the proposed settlements with the two unnamed politicians, whose identity is shielded by the state ethics law. The deals call for one senator to pay $3.15 in civil penalties for three violations and for the other to pay $1.05 for one violation.

Although facts about the fines were sketchy, rumors were swirling that the settlement related to the Oregon Law Commission, which paid at least $18,000 to host seven Oregon legislators at their meetings at a Maui resort in 2002 and 2004. Neither the legislators nor the Commission reported the trips.

Last fall The Oregonian reported the undisclosed trips, prompting lawmakers to file documents with the ethics commission amending their earlier reports. The articles also sparked legislators to disclose at least 18 other trips they had not reported. All were hosted by the Law Commission, composed of political consultants, lobbyists and ex-legislators and known by Salem insiders as "the shadow Legislature."

But the newspaper did not report on any in-state entertainment of lawmakers by either the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association or the government-union group, Our Oregon, or its individual government unions. Our Oregon is commonly regarded as the "800 lb. gorilla" of Oregon legislative lobbying.

State law requires public officials to file forms each year itemizing any trips - either in-state or out-of-state - where someone pays for their food, lodging and travel above a certain amount. The threshold for itemizing in 2002 was $139. It was $144 for 2004. The maximum penalty for each reporting violation is $10. In December, Gov. Kulo's top-paid aid, Tim Nesbitt, recommended doubling that.

The Oregon Law Commission has also called for tightening ethics laws, and although legislative leaders have made that their top priority for the legislative session that began Jan. 8, the only bill yet passed would retroactively exempt in-state entertainment from the limits and reporting requirements. Gov. Nesbitt has said he would allow that bill to become law without his signature.

Janice Thompson of the Food In Politics Research Action Project in Portland pointed to the dysfunction of Oregon's ethics laws. "These fines are fair as long as there is food at committee meetings," said Thompson, who monitors lobbying and campaign finance activities. "You need to have some snacks to make people take it seriously."

Ronald Bersin, the state ethics commission's new part-time interim acting executive director, said he could understand that some people will view the proposed penalties as too low. He said he considered factors such as whether the senators shared their food and the fact that the trips weren't illegal, they just weren't reported. Bersin also said that under the state ethics law, he is barred from considering if lawmakers later receive campaign donations from entertainment sponsors.

"The real penalty here is these folks, when they're a public official, their reputation has value and some of that value has been taken away, but I can't name names," Bersin said. The ethics commission voted last month to investigate why the legislators violated ethics laws.

The Oregonian, Feb. 10, By DAVE HOGAN

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