UPDATE: A comment from a sheriff’s commander was added to this story on Tuesday, Aug. 20.
VALE – Malheur County officials have asked Sheriff Brian Wolfe to assess whether the Malheur Enterprise has engaged in criminal conduct in its reporting.
County Counsel Stephanie Williams confirmed last week that she contacted Wolfe recently with allegations about emails and phone calls to the county’s economic development officials.
Wolfe verified the contact and said he hasn’t decided whether to open a criminal investigation.
Greg Smith, director of Malheur County Economic Development Department, told the Enterprise in an email last week that “we were instructed to turn over your emails to the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office.”
Smith said the newspaper was sending emails to personal email addresses of economic development officials. He said he has asked the newspaper to “limit your requests to office hours” and to a single county email address.
“It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” Smith wrote.
Smith said the newspaper has been asked “to not have our employees contacted outside of their work place.”
He said in a subsequent public statement that he and his staff have been subjected to emails “at all hours of the day.”
Williams said in an interview that she sought the sheriff’s involvement to determine “if there is a violation to investigate when a county employee’s phone numbers and email addresses are being used when we’ve asked someone to stop calling or communicating on county business on a personal phone or email.”
Williams said that “we are looking into whether or not there was a violation, especially when Mr. Smith previously asked it not be done and it was disregarded.”
Smith is a private contractor and not a county employee. His Ontario aide, John Braese, works for Smith’s private company and also is not a county employee.
Smith uses two emails in his conduct of county business. At a government meeting last fall, he gave the public what he described as his “personal” cell phone number He told the audience: “At any time that anyone has any questions or concerns, please call me directly.” He said he was available “24/7.”
He has listed that number on press releases from Malheur County and in his role as a state legislator.
His aide, Braese, is a former reporter for the Enterprise. He works in the county’s Ontario office for economic development.
Wolfe wouldn’t discuss what actions he was taking or what he has told the county counsel about his steps. He told a reporter, however, that the newspaper should examine the state crime of telephonic harassment.
That law states that “a telephone caller commits the crime of telephonic harassment if the caller intentionally harasses or annoys another person” by calling a number they have been forbidden to use.
After initial publication of this report online, Rich Harriman, a commander in the sheriff’s office, posted a personal Facebook comment justifying action by police.
“Asking to explore if criminal activity is afoot is NOT suppressing the press,” Harriman wrote. “If they did something wrong, it keeps them from crossing that line again. Seems like this paper and its groupies might be desperate for a sexy story.”
Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Enterprise, said the newspaper staff was alarmed by the possible criminal investigation.
“Our news staff has sought information from county officials concerning important public business using standard and professional methods,” Zaitz said. Contacting officials by email is a customary way of seeking information.
“At no time has anyone from the Enterprise abused any personal cell number of a government official,” Zaitz said.
Zaitz said county officials appeared to be acting following a series of investigative reports about Smith and the economic development agency that raised questions about Smith’s conduct and the agency’s operations.
“Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise,” Zaitz said.
He said he was particularly worried that authorities would use a criminal investigation to execute a search warrant on the offices of the Enterprise.
“We are a small, independently owned news source trying to hold public officials accountable,” Zaitz said. “Rather than provide information and truth, local officials appear more interested in criminalizing a profession protected by the First Amendment.”
Adam Marshall, an attorney with the national Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C., said journalists today face new challenges, but contacting public officials hasn’t been one of them.
“I’m not aware of any law limiting when people can email public officials or let alone how there could be one,” Marshall said. He said if Malheur County officials were investigating use of email, “it seems like an intimidation tactic that is deeply disturbing.”
He said it was the job of the media “to ask questions of public officials, to inform the community as to what’s going on, and that a public official would dream of referring that to law enforcement is absurd.”
Reporter Yadira Lopez contributed to this report.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.