Oregon's new ethics law challenged in state court


An influential lobbyist and lawyer asked a judge Monday to throw out Oregon's new ethics law, saying it violates the state constitution by imposing new limits on the gifts and entertainment that can be given to legislators and other public officials.

Portland attorney John DiLorenzo contends the restrictions violate the free speech rights of lobbyists and should be blocked before they take effect Jan. 1.

Marion County Circuit Judge Joseph Guimond, who heard arguments in the case Monday, indicated he would rule within three weeks.

The new ethics law, passed earlier this year by the Oregon Legislature, restricts food, trips and other gifts that someone could give to a public official to $50 per calendar year.

Further, it bans lobbyists from providing entertainment or honoraria &

usually payments for speeches &

to those officials.

Current law does not limit entertainment, food, and travel provided to public officials.

During legislative discussions, backers said the tough new ethics law was needed to restore public confidence in government after a half dozen or so state lawmakers failed to disclose lobbyist-paid trips to Maui and other locales in 2002 and 2004.

But in Monday's arguments, DiLorenzo said lobbying amounts to "political expression," and the limits are overly restrictive and will interfere with lobbyists' ability to communicate with lawmakers.

DiLorenzo filed the lawsuit on behalf of fellow lobbyist Fred VanNatta. He said the new ethics law will prohibit VanNatta and other lobbyists "from engaging in any goodwill-building activities."

He also argued that the limits aren't necessary because Oregon already has laws against bribery &

giving something of value to public officials in return for favorable action from government.

Assistant Attorney General Charles Fletcher urged the judge to uphold the new ethics law. He said the limits are constitutional and necessary to avoid any appearance that government officials are being overly influenced by gifts or entertainment they receive from private interests.

"I don't believe the framers (of the state constitution) had that scenario in mind," Fletcher said of DiLorenzo's push to have all gift limits, including current ones, thrown out.

Aside from the larger legal issues involved, there are various technical and procedural questions surrounding the new law that the state Ethics Commission is expected to work out between now and when the new law's provisions take effect Jan. 1.

Most of them surround the new $50 annual limit on the value of gifts to public officials from lobbyists or those seeking government contracts.

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