Commissioner Larry Wilson, rear left, wears his Malheur County Economic Development shirt at a state meeting in Salem in July. (ODOT video)
VALE – Malheur County Commissioner Larry Wilson sat in a state meeting in Salem last July, wearing a one-of-a-kind shirt.
The long-sleeved shirt was personalized.
“Commissioner Wilson,” it read.
Wilson received the shirt and a second one from Greg Smith, the private contractor from Heppner retained to serve as Malheur County’s economic development director.
Records obtained by the Enterprise showed the two shirts cost Smith’s company $140 – nearly three times the state limit on gifts Wilson can accept from a contractor.
Last month, Wilson wrote a check to reimburse most of the cost of the shirts, acting after the Enterprise sought public records on the matter.
Smith, who operates as Gregory Smith & Company LLC, produced no record that his company provided clothing to Malheur County’s other commissioners, Dan Joyce and Don Hodge. Joyce and Hodge confirmed they received no personalized shirts.
And nothing in the documents released through the Malheur County Economic Development Department showed that any board member on the county-run business overseeing a $26 million Nyssa rail reload project got customized clothing.
Smith has pushed for the taxpayer-funded rail reload project for more than two years. After a series of delays, the state agreed in July to fund the project.
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Wilson, a part-time commissioner who runs a real estate firm, has been a longtime supporter of the Nyssa project and has vigorously defended Smith.
Wilson is also a minor shareholder in a company that owns property in the area of the Nyssa project. The Malheur County Court agreed in July 2018 to buy the land for $394,650 but Wilson abstained from the action and the state later said it wouldn’t fund the deal. The county has until Dec. 31 to close its purchase on the Nyssa Industries property.
The clothing transaction raises the question of whether Wilson violated the state ethics law that restricts gifts to avoid improper influences on government decisions.
According to the law, “during a calendar year, a public official, a candidate or a relative or member of the household of the public official or candidate may not solicit or receive, directly or indirectly, any gift or gifts with an aggregate value in excess of $50 from any single source that could reasonably be known to have a legislative or administrative interest.”
The Legislature in 2007 tightened gift controls, lowering from $100 to $50 the value of gifts elected officials could accept in certain circumstances, part of a major reform of state ethics laws. Smith, who has served in the Oregon House for 18 years, voted against the 2007 legislation.
“As far as gifts go, the question then was, do you allow public officials to have unlimited gifts and report everything or do you want to limit them. It was decided to limit them,” said Ron Bersin, the executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.
A “legislative or administrative” interest occurs when someone has a financial stake in any legislation, resolutions or decisions that are subject to a vote by a public official.
Two months before receiving the shirts, Wilson voted to award two new contracts to Smith’s company, worth $180,000 a year. Smith not only manages economic development duties for Malheur County but for several other public entities in Oregon.
In an email Friday, Wilson declared that it was “false” that he voted on the contracts. He said the primary contract “to run our economic development department was approved, in June 2019, as part of the entire 2019-2020 annual budget.”
Yet minutes of the Malheur County Court meeting on May 22 show that the county commissioners voted on the two contracts separately after “Commissioner Wilson moved to approve” each of them.
As a county commissioner, Wilson’s status in regard to Smith creates that “administrative interest” and triggers the gift restriction, Bersin said.
“If you are one of the people who can decide on the money, that pretty much establishes administrative interest,” said Bersin.
Documents obtained through a public records request to the county showed the order for Wilson’s shirts was placed on July 11. Smith said in an email that his company, not the county, placed the order.
The work was done by Elkhorn Embroidery in Baker City with the instructions to put the logo of the economic development department and “Commissioner Wilson” on two shirts, one a long-sleeve twill, the other a short-sleeve polo. The price for the two shirts with the embroidery was $140.58, according to the shirt order.
DOCUMENT: Elkhorn Embroidery order
In August, the Enterprise asked Wilson in writing about one shirt, asking if he paid for it or whether it was a gift.
“Greg Smith gave it to me more as a uniform,” Wilson said in response. “It was specifically for the final presentation we had before the Oregon Transportation Commission.” He didn’t disclose then that there had been a second shirt.
Video shows Wilson attended the July 18 state meeting wearing the long-sleeve shirt. He was seated in the audience and didn’t address the commission during its meeting. The commission decided to proceed with state funding for Malheur County’s rail shipping project.
On Sept. 13, the Enterprise sought records about the shirts from the county economic development agency. Six days later, Wilson repaid Smith with a check drawn on his personal account.
The check copy provided by Wilson showed it was for $105.98 – not the $140.58 cost of the shirts. The check was made out not to Smith’s company but to Smith’s wife, Sherri, with the notation: “reimbursement for work shirts and embroidery.”
DOCUMENT: Larry Wilson payment
Wilson and Smith didn’t respond to subsequent written questions about the shirts.
Bersin said the timeline on how soon an official should pay for a service or goods received from a contractor is unclear.
“I don’t know if anyone has come up with a time. The commission would probably look at whether it was used? Not used? What were the circumstances of it? Was there some kind quid pro quo?” said Bersin.
Bersin said someone illegally accepting a gift can be disciplined by the ethics commission, ranging from a “letter of education” to a $5,000 fine.
The reason Oregon limits gifts to public officials is clear, according to L. Patrick Hearn, who spent 15 years as executive director of the ethics commission.
“The premise behind the limitation is to prevent influence peddling,” said Hearn.
“It doesn’t matter if it is $50, $500 or $1,000, the amount is not the issue,” said Hearn. “It is the principle.”
Hearn said he believes the shirts violated the state’s $50 gift limitation.
“Beyond that, it wasn’t very good judgment of either one of them,” said Hearn. “It creates the appearance that doesn’t ensure public trust at all.”
Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
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