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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Shine a little light

A bill to explain public distrust

In Oregon, legislators who work as lobbyists at the same time can keep secret the people who hire them - making it virtually impossible for voters or journalists to track how legislators are letting private interests interfere with their public duties.

That would change under a measure introduced this week by freshman Sen. Larry George, R-Sherwood, who wants to make his professional colleagues reveal who they work for. "The appearance needs to be cleaned up," George says, "so the public has trust."

With Oregon's lobbyist-controlled Legislature, it's tricky to define "conflict of interest." About a dozen legislators own consulting businesses in 'public affairs', 'government relations' or other tricky business that are impossible to disentangle from the state legislature and politics. Dozens of others, like Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, have pretend jobs in the public education system or in a more obscure government worker collective bargaining group.

Still others are simply union hacks who were set up as candidates and put in office by the 800-lb. gorilla of state politics, Oregon's government unions.

Rep. Chuck Burley, R-Bend, is a former forest regulator and forest entrepreneur who launched a so-called 'government relations' company in 2001 before he joined the Legislature. "If we say we're not going to trust anybody," Burley says, "we're not going to trust anybody."

House and Senate rules call for legislators to declare potential conflicts of interest as bills come up for votes, but that has never happened. The rules require them to vote. Also, public officials must list on annual forms the instances where they received more than $1,000 from "each person for whom you performed a service." The form doesn't require clients' names if doing so violates professional ethics. A few legislators list their clients on the annual forms; most don't.

House and Senate Democratic leaders say they'll consider George's proposal as part of their effort to say they beefed up ethics laws without really doing anything.

Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, voiced mild support for George's bill but only as atonement. The Oregonian reported before the last election that Metsger did not disclose a beer and wine distributors' Maui job after receiving a written opinion from the ethics commission's staff telling him he didn't need to report it. Rep. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, says he's OK with a plan that would "open up the process" but hadn't seen George's bill. Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who recently left public relations powerhouse Gard & Gerber to do "crisis management" on her own, says the requirement isn't necessary, adding that legislators sometimes lose business opportunities because of their public jobs.

Burdick and many others favor another piece of legislation - Senate Bill 494 - that would allow legislators to get off the hook by declaring a conflict of interest, and then abstaining from voting on a bill. Media consultants, lobbyists and staffers drafting the ethics package are struggling to square Burdick's approach - that is quite popular with lawmakers - with the new Democratic leadership's commitment to "beef up the ethics laws."

The Oregonian, Feb. 21, by JANIE HAR and DAVE HOGAN

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