They commission’s handling of the high-profile case of former Gov. John Kitzhaber and first lady Cylvia Hayes exemplified this independence, auditors wrote. In 2018, staffers for the commission determined that Kitzhaber likely violated state ethics laws, including the prohibition against officials using their positions for personal gain, when he insisted that Hayes be allowed to influence state policies and gain access to high-level meetings. Commissioners agreed . Private groups paid the former first lady more than $200,000 to promote green energy and economic policies and commissioners also found she violated state ethics laws. At $2.9 million, the ethics commission’s two-year budget is tiny by state agency standards. Auditors said the Ethics Commission’s nine-person staff has only two investigators and no control over the number of ethics complaints they receive, so the state’s tight 30-day limit on preliminary investigations is problematic. Complaints are confidential during the preliminary investigation, which is supposed to give investigators an opportunity to determine if there is enough information to warrant a full investigation. When overloaded investigators cannot get answers to crucial questions in the 30-day window, the Ethics Commission is forced to decide whether to dismiss a potential valid complaint or proceed to a full investigation which could incorrectly signal to the public that there’s more evidence of an official’s potential wrongdoing than actually exists, auditors wrote. Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, agreed with a number of the auditors’ recommendations and said the commission is neutral on others that would require legislation because Gov. Kate Brown has final say over whether to pursue such legislation. Changes that would require changes in state law include requiring school board members to file statements of economic interest, requiring public employees to go through ethics training or demonstrate knowledge of state ethics laws upon hiring and allowing anonymous or confidential ethics complaints. Auditors also recommended state laws be changed to limit the governor’s ability to remove an ethics commissioner, for example by requiring just cause, and to extend commissioners’ terms beyond four years or allow them to serve more than one term in order to retain some knowledge of state ethics laws. They suggested the Legislature authorize the Ethics Commission to hire its own independent lawyer so it would no longer have to rely on the Oregon Department of Justice for legal advice, since that agency’s employees are among the public officials subject to the commission’s oversight. Lawmakers could also propose any of those changes. Bersin noted that the Ethics Commission and governor already have a bill to extend the time investigators can spend on preliminary ethics inquiries from 30 to 60 days and the Senate passed it on a bipartisan vote in April. Senate Bill 60 is now in the House Rules Committee, where it has not been scheduled for a vote. Bersin agreed with all of auditors’ recommendations that would clearly not require changes to state law, including that the Ethics Commission should regularly produce a newsletter and use social media to inform the public about the commission’s case decisions, how to file a complaint, lobbying disclosures and other information.https://www.bendbulletin.com/localstate/state/audit-oregon-should-boost-ethics-officials-independence-anti-corruption-measures/article_0fd045a0-86c4-504d-becd-0ab8010ba961.html
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