The Malheur Enterprise and its editor this week sued Greg Smith, Malheur County’s former economic development director, alleging he destroyed and tampered with public records and otherwise hindered access to government documents.
The suit was filed Monday, Sept. 12, in Malheur County Circuit Court against Smith and his consulting company, Gregory Smith & Company, the Malheur County Development Corporation and Malheur County.
The suit alleges Smith destroyed text messages the newspaper sought as part of its ongoing reporting on project delays and cost overruns for an onion shipping center, the Treasure Valley Reload Center north of Nyssa.
“The people in Malheur County deserve this information. That’s the bottom line.”–Les Zaitz, Malheur Enterprise publisher
The development, initially funded with a $26 million state grant, needs another $9 million to finish and begin operating, according to project officials. They are seeking $3 million more in state funds from legislators this month.
The complaint also says Smith did not respond to multiple public records requests from the newspaper for public documents, including a project budget for the reload center, and engaged in official misconduct by deleting or destroying text messages between Smith and an employee related to county business and economic development work.
READ IT: Public records lawsuit
Smith did not respond to a call and email from Salem Reporter seeking a response to the allegations in the suit.
Under Oregon law, public bodies are required to provide records to anyone who requests them “as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay,” unless those records are exempt from disclosure under state law.
Smith, who lives in Heppner, has served since 2001 as a state legislator representing Oregon’s House District 57, which includes portions of Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam, Sherman and Wasco counties. A Republican, he is dean of the House and holds a seat on the powerful budget committee.
Through his company, Smith has contracted with Malheur County since 2013 to provide economic development services. He also serves other public agencies in eastern Oregon.
The suit alleges Smith charged the newspaper hundreds of dollars to fulfill routine requests for records, including requiring the newspaper to pay $590 for a farm lease and $250 for construction meeting minutes.
Oregon law allows public bodies to charge fees for staff time required to locate, assemble and redact public records, though agencies may waive or reduce fees where information provided is in the public interest.
According to the complaint, Smith charged the “unreasonable fees in his attempt to shield himself and the Malheur County Development Corporation from public scrutiny regarding their spending of public dollars and their management of the Reload Center’s construction.”
Smith failed to account for the time spent on fulfilling the request or the hourly rate charged and failed to refund the newspaper after the invoiced cost of the records was less than the fee estimate originally provided, the suit says.
“The people in Malheur County deserve this information. That’s the bottom line. The delays, the obstructions, the costs are intended to keep the information from the taxpayers. That’s not right,” Zaitz said.
Dan Norris, a former Malheur County district attorney and assistant attorney general, is representing the newspaper in the suit.
The reload center project is overseen by the development corporation, a public company managed by a board, with Smith contracted by the corporation to manage day-to-day operations.
Grant Kitamura of Ontario, the board’s president, told Salem Reporter Monday he hadn’t had a chance to review the suit. The corporation’s attorney, Brian DiFonzo, did not respond to a call from Salem Reporter about the suit.
Smith quit his role as the county’s economic development director in June, but agreed to stay on in his role managing the reload center project with a 50% pay increase to $9,000 per month, the Enterprise reported.
The reload center project is millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, according to reporting by the Enterprise.
The paper has reported and editorialized about the project’s cost overruns and Smith’s economic development work for years, and in a June editorial called for Smith to be removed from running the project, noting he was warned 18 months ago by the project’s lead engineer that the funds budgeted for the reload center were insufficient to complete it.
Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce declined to comment on specific allegations in the suit.
He said to his knowledge, Malheur County doesn’t have a standard policy on granting fee waivers for public records. County employees receive training on state public records law, he said, including their obligation not to destroy public records.
Joyce said if Smith destroyed public records, he was unaware of it.
“We’re not involved in the day-to-day operations of what the other departments were doing unless something comes to our attention,” he said.
Zaitz said in an era of diminishing newspaper resources, many public officials expect they won’t be held accountable for flouting public records laws. The suit is an effort to hold “government accountable to people who pay the bills.”
“Litigation like this is not just for a particular document but to make the point that the public’s business ought to be done in public,” he said.
The suit seeks production of public records Smith has refused to release, damages in the amount the newspaper has paid for public records, and punitive and general damages of an unspecified amount.
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