Business & economy, Local government

Smith agrees to pay Malheur County $70,000 over mishandling of public records

VALE – Greg Smith, former Malheur County economic development director, has agreed to pay the county $68,000 over its claims that he mishandled public records related to the Nyssa reload center.

Smith and his company, Gregory Smith & Company of Heppner, deny doing anything wrong. The agreement with Malheur County indicates the $68,911 will be paid by Smith’s insurer.

The sum covers every dollar demanded by the county.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce signed the deal on Wednesday, Dec. 6.

The settlement is one more vestige of Smith’s tenure as a contractor handling economic development affairs. He quit his county role in June 2022 and months later abruptly quit as project manager for Treasure Valley Reload Center.

Smith, a Republican representative, abandoned a project he pushed for years on rosy promises onions would be shipping out a train depot in Nyssa. Instead, the project fell behind schedule, mismanagement hiked costs, and officials ultimately concluded earlier this year to stop the work and assess if the Treasure Valley Reload Center remains viable.

Smith his attorney, Bill Ohle of the Portland law firm of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, didn’t respond to calls or emails seeking comment on the agreement.

The money is intended to repay costs incurred by the county in settling a lawsuit with the Malheur Enterprise over public records.

The county ended more than a year of wrangling between the county and Smith.

In August 2022, Malheur County through County Counsel Stephanie Williams wrote to Smith that his company’s contract required the firm to hold the county harmless in any type of lawsuit related to Smith’s duties.

The county asserted Smith’s company was required under the agreement to respond to, and process, public records requests “in accordance with applicable law.”

Smith did not formally respond, county officials said.

By then, the county and its development company, Malheur County Development Corp., faced a lawsuit by the Enterprise over what the newspaper detailed as destruction of public records and other violations of public records law.

In February 2023, the county sent Smith a second letter asking that Smith’s firm protect the county against legal fees. Smith didn’t respond to that query either, officials said.

In August, the county sent another letter and warned Smith “if the company fails to timely make payment, county will pursue all rights and remedies it may have under the agreement and or applicable law, including, without limitation, commencing appropriate legal action against the company and Smith in Malheur County Circuit Court.”

The Enterprise sued the county and the Malheur County Development Corp. – the public company set up by the county commissioners to oversee the reload project – in September 2022 to enforce the state’s public records law. The newspaper used public documents to report on the financial mismanagement and project delays of the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

In its suit, the paper asserted that public records were illegally withheld or destroyed and that excessive fees had been charged.

The suit initially also named Smith in the suit. The Enterprise dismissed Smith from the lawsuit because he serves as a state representative and legislators are protected from civil suits when the Legislature is in session. The actions, though, cited in the lawsuit occurred during Smith’s tenure.

In a December 2022, deposition, Smith conceded that he destroyed text messages that were public record. Smith also failed to disclose a project budget for the reload center but instead furnished a photograph of a “scribbled on” version of the budget.

He also said under oath that he did have a contract with the county’s development company, but company officials said there was no such contract.

In May 2023, officials settled the newspaper’s lawsuit. The county paid $19,500 and the development company paid $20,500 to reimburse the newspaper its legal costs in pressing for the records.

“Malheur County had a unique economic development opportunity for which there was no existing model,” the agreement stated. “In retrospect, the program, which included MCDC, should have been better structured to promote transparency.”

The statement continued, “The county and MCDC have made significant changes to the program to promote transparency that did not exist before.”

Shawna Peterson, an Ontario attorney, replaced Smith, hired by the development company as its executive director. Under her leadership, the company has cleared up unpaid bills, shut down construction, and is assessing how to continue the project that Smith handled for five years.

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

Previous coverage:

Malheur County says Smith cost it nearly $70,000, wants his company to pay up

Enterprise sues Greg Smith, Malheur County over public records matters

Smith says under oath he had contract for reload project – but ‘no records exist’

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