Legislative Lawyer Says Senate Minority Leader Can Hire His Son for Staff Job, Despite Anti-Nepotism Law

The prohibitions that apply to nearly all public employees don’t apply to the people who make the laws.

Sen. Tim Knopp. (Campaign photo)

Earlier this week, WW reported that Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend) was planning to hire his son, Reagan Knopp, to be chief of staff for the Oregon Senate Republican caucus.

Oregon government ethics laws include an anti-nepotism section. The laws say public officials may not hire or supervise family members but provides a loophole for lawmakers in what appears to be a specific circumstance.

That loophole says lawmakers may hire family members if they are to serve on the “personal legislative staff of the member of the Legislative Assembly.”

The Senate GOP caucus office, however, serves all Republican senators, not just Sen. Knopp.

Earlier this week, Bryan Iverson, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said Knopp had asked the Legislative Counsel’s Office, which provides legal advice to lawmakers, for an opinion on whether he could hire his son for the caucus office.

In a July 14 email, senior deputy legislative counsel provided an answer: “We believe the answer is likely yes.”

But as the word “likely” indicates, the situation is complicated.

“Oregon’s government ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from being involved in the hiring or supervision of a relative or member of the household. ORS 244.177 and 244.179,” senior deputy legislative counsel Dan Gilbert wrote.

“However, both of these statutes make an exception that allows a member of the Legislative Assembly to hire and supervise a relative or member of the household who will serve “on the personal legislative staff of the member of the Legislative Assembly.”

Gilbert explained that the framework was “ambiguous.”

“The phrase ‘personal legislative staff’ is not defined in statute and does not appear in any Oregon statutory provision other than ORS 244.177 and 244.179,” the lawyer wrote.

“Similarly, there is no reference to legislative caucus staff, legislative leadership staff, or any other reference to legislative staff contained within ORS chapter 244 or Oregon’s government ethics laws,” he added. “This lack of definitions or relevant context make the phrase ‘personal legislative staff’ somewhat ambiguous.”

Legislative branch personnel rules do provide a definition for the term: “‘Personal staff’” means an employee working directly for a legislative member and paid from the member’s services and supply budget.” (Gilbert did not respond to a request for comment on this point.)

Nonetheless, Gilbert noted in his analysis that in the absence of bright-line prohibitions on hiring family members for jobs other than “personal legislative staff” roles, lawmakers had done so.

“We understand that legislative rules and practice have consistently interpreted this phrase [personal legislative staff] broadly to include any legislative staff for which a member of the Legislative Assembly serves as the appointing authority,” Gilbert wrote.

As an example, Gilbert noted that when she served as Senate minority leader, the late Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Salem) hired her daughter-in-law to serve in the same position for which Reagan Knopp has been hired.

And although Gilbert acknowledged “some uncertainty exists,” he advised Knopp to move ahead.

“While uncertainty exists, we believe that you are likely permitted to hire and supervise your relative as chief of staff for the Oregon Senate Republican Caucus,” Gilbert wrote. “However, we would recommend that ORS 244.177 and 244.179 be clarified to remove the existing ambiguity as to how to interpret the phrase ‘personal legislative staff.’”

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