Maria Rojo de SteffeyThe state ethics commission has decided there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that Multnomah County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey violated conflict-of-interest statutes.

A complaint filed against Rojo de Steffey had alleged the commissioner violated those statutes in her dealings with the county's plans for the former Martha Washington Hotel on Southwest 11th Avenue.

And investigators for Oregon's Government Standards and Practices Commission made a preliminary finding of two violations against the commissioner. If those findings had been upheld by the commission, she would have faced a potential fine of $2,000.

But the finding failed to get the four votes needed from the seven-person panel. Only two commissioners upheld the finding. Two others voted no because of potential conflicts of interest. And two commissioners — Thomas Bruner, a staffer for Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn; and former Rojo de Steffey chief of staff Shelli Romero — recused themselves. One member was absent.

Rojo de Steffey had been accused of violating a state law that says public officials must publicly announce any potential conflicts of interest before taking any action on them. The investigation, first reported in WW (see 'Sweetheart Deal,' WW, July 5, 2006), was in response to a citizen complaint that Rojo de Steffey helped the development company her husband works for try to buy the hotel building to convert it into affordable housing.

During the commission meeting, Rojo de Steffey and her lawyer, Chip Lazenby, argued that the commissioner had only participated in the initial meetings concerning the disposition of the property, before the county had decided to sell it to a company that would turn it into affordable housing.

"These meetings did not make a final determination of what's going on with the building," Lazenby said. "The commissioner was looking for ideas for what to do."

In addition, Rojo de Steffey said she had not known she needed to reveal her potential conflict of interest at every meeting concerning the bids on the property. She had put the information on record at a commission meeting on March 21, but failed to state it again at a meeting on March 30.

On the March 30 meeting, however, she promised that if her husband's company, Guardian Management, submitted a proposal for the building she would abstain from voting. This statement indicated that Rojo de Steffey was aware of the potential violation of conflict of interest.

"I said this out of stupidity and naïveté, because I thought that I had already made it clear," Rojo de Steffey said.

One of the investigators, former Washington County Commissioner Delna Jones reminded Rojo de Steffey that violations are frequently made accidentally, but are still against the law.

"Your comment is not uncommon in what we see," Jones said. "We are not looking to nail you or make you look bad."

However, at least two commission members considered this accidental lack of declaration to be a mitigating circumstance when they voted that Rojo de Steffey had not committed a violation.