Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Rural weekly investigates how Oregon legislator has scored multiple government contracts for his private business

Oregon state Rep. Greg Smith
(Mid-Valley Media photo by Mark Ylen) 
The Malheur Enterprise in rural Oregon has won multiple awards for watchdog journalism; now, editor-publisher Les Zaitz and his team are at it again. They recently published an article, the third in a series, on how state legislator Greg Smith has been able to score multiple government contracts for his private business.

Smith, R-Heppner, wears many hats. As a state representative, he serves on nine legislative committees and leads three, earning $31,200 a year. He also has a full-time job directing Eastern Oregon University's Small Business Development Center, and a second full-time job as executive director of a group redeveloping the U.S. Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot. Since he took office in 2001, "he has stacked one government contract atop another," Zaitz, Pat Caldwell and Kristine de Leon report.

"He uses his influence in the Legislature ­– he is dean of the House ­– to benefit those who retain him, pushing through millions of dollars in state allocations," the Enterprise reports. Its three-month probe, for which Smith refused to comment, "untangled his public service and his private contracts through government documents and interviews, revealing an empire funded by public money."

Smith has "made no secret" of his roles and has occasionally sought guidance from the state ethics commission. But some county officials say there's no way Smith can ethically reconcile his conflicts of interest, and wonder why there isn't more state oversight, the Enterprise reports.

The rural weekly demonstrated its willingness to take on state-level corruption in 2017 with its "Deadly Decisions" package, which revealed that a mental hospital improperly released a patient who went on to commit two murders. The package earned the Enterprise--and Zaitz--multiple national awards, including the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the 2017 Investigative Reporters & Editors Award in the Freedom of Information category. Largely on the strength of that package, ProPublica chose the Enterprise as one of only seven newsrooms nationwide (out of 239 applicants) for the first generation of its Local Reporting Network.

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