The Malheur Enterprise spent months investigating a state lawmaker's business deals in Malheur County, Oregon, and now the county wants to investigate the paper for harassment. County Counsel Stephanie Williams confirmed last week that she asked Sheriff Brian Wolfe to investigate whether reporters' persistent phone calls and emails violated the law. Wolfe said he hasn't decided whether to open a criminal investigation. Pat Caldwell reports for the Enterprise.
The official complaint is that reporters made calls outside of business hours and emailed county Economic Development Department officials' personal email addresses. EDD director Greg Smith said he had asked reporters to limit requests to office hours and to a single county email address. Williams told the Enterprise that 'we are looking into whether or not there was a violation, especially when Mr. Smith previously asked it not be done and it was disregarded,'" Caldwell reports.
Enterprise reporters had contacted Smith's office several times in recent weeks while investigate a tip alleging that Smith had lured a new car wash to the area with promises of a tax exemption that was never delivered. Smith did not respond to any of the emails, including a draft of the story offered before publication so he could cite any errors, until after the story had been published, according to Enterprise editor and publisher Les Zaitz.
Further muddying the waters: Smith is a private contractor and a state legislator, but is not a county employee. Moreover, he gave out his cell phone number at a government meeting last fall, and told the audience he was available "24/7" for any questions or concerns. That same phone number is listed on Malheur County press releases and has been given out in his communications as a state legislator, Caldwell reports.
Zaitz said the newspaper was alarmed about a possible investigation, and said the staff has used "standard and professional methods" to seek information from officials about important public business. "At no time has anyone from the Enterprise abused any personal cell number of a government official," Zaitz told Caldwell. "Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise."