Local government, Special Reports

Malheur County blocks Enterprise from news conference on rail center

Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, wrongly claimed in an interview on June 16 that the Malheur Enterprise took money from George Soros, a figure reviled by conservative forces. (ISAAC WASSERMAN/The Enterprise)

VALE – Leaders of the Treasure Valley Reload Center last week conducted a news conference with new information about their project – but blocked the Malheur Enterprise from participating.

The news conference, held by telephone, was arranged by Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director. He was joined by Grant Kitamura, an onion industry executive who is president of Malheur County Development Corp., the public company building the Nyssa project.

Smith’s team notified other news outlets of the conference that he scheduled for Tuesday, June 14, but provided no notice to the Enterprise. The Enterprise has been reporting in-depth on the project since its inception in 2017.

When Les Zaitz, editor of the Enterprise, and a reporter twice called in to the conference, their calls were disconnected and then the Enterprise number was electronically blocked from accessing the conference.

“This was extraordinary – public officials discussing a public project yet deciding to control the press. That is never the job of government,” said Zaitz in a statement after the conference.

Smith did not respond to telephone messages or emails seeking comment. He has a practice of not providing interviews or responding to written questions from the Enterprise.

Kitamura said last week he knew about the press conference that morning but wasn’t briefed on what it was to be about. Later, he said, Smith asked if he could update reporters on the progress of the rail project.

“There was nothing new in that update that we haven’t gone over numerous times,” said Kitamura.

In fact, Smith disclosed that the project needed $6 million more to finish and that he was arranging a meeting with state transportation officials to seek those funds.

Kitamura said he didn’t know if he agreed with Smith’s decision to block the Enterprise from the press conference.

“It’s not board policy. I think legally he can do that but I don’t think I’d want to cause issues with the Enterprise,” said Kitamura.

Kitamura said Smith excluded the Enterprise to give other news organizations a chance to gather information.

“Greg’s reasoning, he gave to Les, was Les, you’ve monopolized these deals and we want other people to have a chance,” said Kitamura.

Kitamura said Smith’s decision probably “didn’t serve his needs the best.”

Afterward, residents sent emails of protest to Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, objecting to the county’s treatment of the Enterprise.

“That the Malheur Enterprise was banned from participating in Tuesday teleconference is appalling,” wrote Linda Nuessle of Westfall. “Greg Smith should not be re-hired by this county for his lackluster handling of the Treasure Valley Reload Center.”

“As a public servant, Smith has a duty to be open and honest about his work, both in his actions and in his communication, including his response to criticism and inquiries for evidence related to his work,” wrote Melissa Vargas. “When he cuts off a source of our information, he is choosing not to communicate with all of the public.”

Joyce said that he wasn’t aware of the news conference until contacted by an Enterprise reporter.

In an interview on Thursday, June 16, Joyce said he wanted “to know why” the Vale news organization was barred from the conference.

Joyce resisted answering whether he personally agreed with Smith’s action. Asked three separate times, Joyce finally said he didn’t believe the paper should have been excluded.

“I just don’t get it,” he said.

Joyce took the occasion of the interview to criticize the Enterprise reporting on the shipping center.

“You bring a total spirit of meanness to Malheur County in your reporting,” Joyce said. “I would agree with what people say about the spirit of meanness on just the reload.”

The judge acknowledged he doesn’t read the Enterprise and was unaware of any errors in its reporting. He said it was “not the facts but the tone” of the articles he found troubling.

Bristling at questions, Joyce said, “Here’s the other thing that comes up all the time.”

He then claimed the Enterprise is funded by George Soros, a billionaire investor. Soros is a supporter of progressive and liberal political organizations and institutions, and has been a target of far-right conspiracy theorists.

“He’s anti-American,” Joyce said.

Joyce also said the Enterprise was funded by Pro Publica.

Asked to identify his source of information, Joyce stood up, went to his office desk and promptly pulled out from a drawer a two-page document. It was a 2017 article from the website mrcNewsBusters, which bills itself as “one of the nation’s most widely read conservative blogs” that is “committed to neutralizing left-wing bias in the news media.”

The article described how ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom based in New York, planned to support additional reporters for seven newsrooms around the U.S. The Enterprise was selected for the project for additional investigative reporting on Anthony Montwheeler, later convicted of the murder and assault.

Soros’ foundation at the time accounted for about 2% of the funding for ProPublica, which at the time obtained more substantial funding from the Knight, Ford and MacArthur foundations.

ProPublica covered the costs for an investigative reporter for the Enterprise for one year starting in 2018.

Zaitz said the Enterprise, a family-owned company, has no ties to George Soros.

“That Judge Joyce would try to link us to a man reviled by conservatives has only one goal – to slander a newspaper and a business that has served Malheur County for more than 100 years. That suggests that any taxpayer in Malheur County – and we do pay taxes here – should be on guard not to criticize or question the judge,” he said.

Joyce later couldn’t explain why he was keeping at hand derogatory information about a county business.

“I don’t know. I just have it,” he said, adding that he “had no idea” how the information was relevant to county business.

He said he doesn’t collect information on other taxpayers.

“It was the only piece of information I got,” he said.

He offered this reason for raising the information in an interview focused on the rail shipping: “I brought it up because I never had a chance to address it before.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness.