You could hardly blame Pat Hearn for feeling outnumbered and unwanted.
As director of Oregon's beleaguered Government Standards and Practices Commission for the past 15 years, Hearn has been the ethics watchdog for Oregon's 200,000-plus public employees and appointees.
Since Hearn, a 58-year-old former cop from Southern California, took the job in the early '90s, the state's budget has more than doubled, yet his staff—currently a total of three people—is less than half the size it was when he started. Legislators even stripped the word "ethics" from his agency's name, lest the public get the wrong idea about his investigations. Small wonder, then, that Hearn just left Oregon for a new job as director of Nevada's Commission on Ethics.
WW caught up with Hearn as he cleaned out his desk and asked him to weigh in on legislative nepotism and the notion that Oregon is squeaky-clean.
WW: If the commission's function is to prevent public officials from using their jobs for personal gain, should legislators be able to employ family members on their staffs?
Pat Hearn: I don't think so. The rest of us in the public sector can't. My wife would make an outstanding executive assistant for me, but I can't hire her. People constantly ask me why members of the Legislature are able to employ family members. The truth is, I don't know—I can't answer the question. I think it's one of those things that's simply just always been done.
Why did the name of the Ethics Commission change to Government Standards and Practices?
It was suggested by a lobbyist lawyer who has represented numerous public officials in front of the commission that the term "ethics" was too onerous, that if a high-profile public official had a case with the commission and got headlines that said something like, "Sen. Doe faces ethics charges," that that could be too ruinous.
What did you think about the name change?
It's a joke. The media still uses the term "ethics" over "Government Standards and Practices" 'cause headline editors like to keep it short. And "ethics" is short.
What changes would you make, if you could, to state ethics law?
Right now, Oregon law permits public officials to receive a gift or gifts up to a value of a hundred dollars in a calendar year from a source that has an economic interest distinct from that of the public. But there are some exclusions to that hundred-dollar limit. One is food and beverage without limit when consumed in the presence of the purchaser or provider. That was enacted solely to enable legislators and lobbyists to dine together without any limitation. There's another exemption for entertainment that says you can have a gift or gifts of entertainment provided the value doesn't exceed a hundred dollars per occasion, or two hundred and fifty dollars in a calendar year. That was enacted specifically to enable lobbyists to take legislators to Blazer games. I don't think it's ethical, in the broad sense, for that kind of gratuitous relationship to exist.
Any other changes?
I think penalties need to be increased. The civil penalty for a violation has been $1,000 for 30 years. Many states are at least $5,000 or $10,000. Where I'm going in Nevada is one of the two highest in the country, and it can be up to $25,000.
Why are you going to Nevada?
New opportunity. New challenge. They fund their agency. Nevada has 1.1 million fewer people than Oregon, and the budget for their Ethics Commission is twice as much. And my wife and I are pretty fed up with the rain. We both grew up in warmer climates.
Some people claim there's little or no serious corruption in Oregon. How do you respond to that?
I don't want to suggest that Oregon is an extremely corrupt state, but let me answer it this way. We expect there to be corruption in places like New Jersey and Chicago. But corruption is an element of human behavior. And I don't think human behavior recognizes any geographical boundary. So I think it's almost pompous of Oregonians to think that if it happens in these other places, it's not happening here either. It may be that we just don't know about it because we don't have the resources to know about it.
Hearn made $67,000 a year in Oregon. In his new job in Nevada, he'll make $92,000.
Oregon's ethics commission enforces state law that prohibits public officials from misusing their position to benefit themselves, their relatives or a business associated either with the officials or their relatives.