Oregon Republicans charge Dems with ethics violation

Oregon Republicans have accused state Democratic leaders, including Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland, of an ethics violation over a fundraising luncheon, a charge Buckley dismisses as "political games."

The complaint, filed Monday with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, faults Democrats for an invitation that says, "As the 2011 Legislative Session Approaches (join us) for a private luncheon to discuss potential session issues" at the Arlington Club in Portland for $1,500 a person.

"It's a strange complaint," Buckley said in an interview. "It's no different than a $25-a-ticket fundraiser event ... and it's ironic the Republicans are complaining about high-dollar donors when they do lots of it ... . I'm stunned they'd say it's unethical and theirs is any different. They have private meetings to talk and get money from people."

The invitation is "arrogant about the public process and is a violation of ethics laws," said Greg Leo, communications director of the Oregon Republican Party.

He said the invitation offers a quid pro quo (this-for-that) by asking money in exchange for access to state leaders. Named in the complaint are Democratic nominee for governor John Kitzhaber, Senate President Peter Courtney, Senate Majority Leader Richard Devlin, Ways and Means subcommittee chairwoman Sen. Betsy Johnson and Buckley, House Ways and Means co-chairman.

"I know it's convenient for Peter Buckley to dismiss this but we're taking it very seriously and will pursue it all the way to the election," Leo said.

The complaint said the Democratic officials on the invitation "exercise the strongest influence on our state's budget, our legislation and our legislative agenda" and have violated ethics laws by offering to talk about the narrow matter of "session issues."

This link, said Leo, violates Oregon Revised Statute 244.040 prohibiting public officials from seeking personal gain through use of confidential information gained in office.

"It's a political game, an unfortunate part of the process, casting aspersions on the other party," Buckley said.

"Why is it corrupt to have lunch with (donors) but not one-on-one? I don't understand the reasoning ... . I've done fundraisers all over the state and I'm glad to. Just because you limit the attendance, how does that make it go over the line?"

The gathering was set up by the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, using contacts of Johnson's in the Portland area, said Buckley, who is the only House member on the list of hosts.

Leo said it's "always touchy" when donors meet with politicians to write checks and be heard on issues at the same time. Candidates should "speak on their vision for Oregon and the policies they'd support" and not any legislation, he said.

"A legislator should say he'll take it under consideration and listen to your concerns; you don't say here's your chance for input," said Leo.

The presence of Buckley and Johnson, both members of the powerful, budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, underline "that this is where the levers of power are pulled," Leo said.

Derek Humphrey, Kitzhaber's campaign manager, said Kitzhaber will "talk about issues" but the event "absolutely is not quid pro quo."

Referring to the invitation's "potential session issues," Humphrey said, "that wasn't the best choice of words (and) the Republicans are getting pretty desperate and attacking John for attending a fundraiser. It's an event we agreed to attend to talk about issues."

Leo said Republicans caught the Democrats "with their fingers in the cookie jar."

"If they don't cancel the event, we'll be after them every day ... . They're an elite that don't give a hoot about the rest of us," he said.

Oregon Republican Party Chairman Bob Tiernan said in a news release the event is "pay-for-play fundraising (and) an offer to sell influence."

Noting that Oregon is rated the least politically corrupt state in the nation, Buckley said he's never filed an ethics complaint and "most people on both sides try to make politics better, and this kind of thing is very unfortunate."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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