Over the past six months, records turned over by the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries—the state agency that holds Oregon employers accountable to their workers—show that its former head, now-U.S. Rep. Val Hoyle, oversaw an office that made key decisions outside of public scrutiny.
Hoyle’s conduct while she led the agency may appear to be water under the bridge. After all, she no longer runs the agency and has secured a seat in Congress.
But information released piecemeal by BOLI since Hoyle’s departure—including investigative documents newly obtained by WW—displays a pattern of public business conducted outside of public view.
In particular, Hoyle repeatedly appeared to intercede on behalf of a top campaign donor, Rosa Cazares, the co-founder of the embattled cannabis dispensary chain La Mota. On at least two occasions, Hoyle stepped in when Cazares’ interests were at stake. And five months after WW revealed Hoyle’s actions on Cazares’ behalf, the congresswoman still hasn’t turned over her personal devices so state officials can see what public business she conducted on them.
In April, Hoyle’s actions were largely overshadowed by WW’s revelation that then-Secretary of State Shemia Fagan had taken a consulting contract with La Mota—a career move that is now under federal criminal investigation. But the slow drip of records provided by the agency Hoyle once ran could make her grip on her congressional seat less certain than before.
Hoyle for months now has defended her actions at BOLI and insists she did nothing improper or unethical.
Political onlookers, though, say it looks like a mess. And BOLI’s shadow over Hoyle seems to be growing.
“Anytime anybody looks for a small scandal with any elected official in Oregon, they seem to find a lot more,” says Chris Koski, political science and environmental studies professor at Reed College. “It’s like the equivalent of doing a small remodel on your house and realizing, oh my God, I’ve got a bunch of rotting inside.”
Originally from New Hampshire, Hoyle served in the Oregon Legislature as a state representative for eight years, from 2009 to 2017.
Hoyle’s reputation in the Legislature was that of a no-nonsense union Democrat who was blunt and enjoyably sarcastic, and knew how to work the halls of the Capitol. One current lawmaker calls her “a political animal.” Former state Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) says Hoyle “knew how to talk to Republicans,” giving her a unique ability to cross the aisle; another former legislative colleague said Hoyle was aggressive on policies she worked on and describes her sense of humor as “irreverent.”
Hoyle handily won the race for BOLI commissioner in 2018. She oversaw the bureau, which has a $17 million annual budget and just over 100 employees who investigate workers’ complaints against employers, until the beginning of 2023, when she was sworn in to represent Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, a seat long occupied by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio.
Records obtained by WW over the past six months have shed new light on the latter half of Hoyle’s term overseeing BOLI, revealing a pattern of unusual moves by Hoyle that affected two top donors, Rosa Cazares and Aaron Mitchell, the co-founders of the La Mota dispensary chain.
As WW reported this summer, Hoyle dined with Cazares at the Portland City Grill in the spring of 2021 to discuss how La Mota could set up an apprenticeship through the agency. Records show that BOLI staffers persistently pursued an apprenticeship deal with Cazares, even though they were aware it wasn’t legally viable because cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. (Apprenticeships are also held to federal standards.)
Mitchell, Cazares’ longtime on-and-off partner and owner of La Mota’s many companies, contributed $20,000 in June 2021 to Hoyle’s reelection campaign (she hadn’t yet declared her run for Congress). It made him the second-highest individual donor to Hoyle’s political action committee that year.
Fast forward to the summer of 2022, and Hoyle helped shepherdº a $554,000 state grant to ENDVR, a nonprofit co-founded by Cazares. When ENDVR’s grant proposal was met with sharp criticism by the Oregon State Apprenticeship and Training Council at a July 27 meeting, Hoyle abandoned the standard process and delayed a vote on the grant. She directed ENDVR to come back with a stronger proposal in 30 days.
A month later, ENDVR did just that, and the council approved the grant. (Current Labor Commissioner Christina Stephenson revoked the grant this spring after WW’s investigation of the cannabis couple.)
Records newly obtained by WW show that right after the July meeting, Hoyle directed BOLI staff to meet offline with ENDVR to talk about what the nonprofit would need to do to improve its proposal. Attending the private Aug. 1 meeting were two members of the apprenticeship council. No notes are available from the meeting.
That meeting, however, went awry.
One of the two council members there that day joked that Cazares was a good representative of the cannabis industry because she had no face tattoos. Two BOLI staffers after the meeting wrote an email to their agency director, calling the comment “offensive, disgusting, and demeaning.” The two wrote that they were “obviously horrified” and were “concerned for the inclusivity of future Council meetings.”
The human resources department launched an investigation. Records show that Gov. Kate Brown’s deputy chief of staff at the time, Andrea Cooper, told BOLI the councilman’s comment warranted an investigation.
Two things are apparent from investigation records provided by BOLI’s current administration.
First, the investigation interviews show that staff felt Hoyle’s involvement with the ENDVR grant was peculiar.
One BOLI staff member said in her interview, according to the investigator’s notes, that BOLI’s apprenticeship director was “not happy with Val’s decision to abandon normal process” at the July 27 council meeting. Another staffer, according to HR’s notes, said in an interview that the initial council meeting stopped following Robert’s Rules of Order, a set of parliamentary rules that Oregon governing bodies are supposed to follow when discussing matters before a vote.
BOLI’s current administration under Stephenson declined to comment on the appropriateness of ENDVR meeting privately with BOLI staff at Hoyle’s request, but agency spokeswoman Rachel Mann pointed to state statutes that advise members of a governing body—like the apprenticeship council—not to gather without a quorum because it “creates the appearance of impropriety.”
Hoyle spokeswoman Marissa Sandgren defends Hoyle’s scheduling of the private Aug. 1 meeting, and says it’s “common practice” for apprenticeship staff to “offer assistance to programs or prospective programs.”
The second thing made clear is that the investigation came to a halt in October—after Hoyle called BOLI human resources manager Ashlie Ulstad and told her to drop it, according to Mann. Hoyle placed the call to Ulstad shortly after Ulstad interviewed Cazares about the comment. (In interview notes, Cazares said she took no offense to the face tattoo comment.)
“Ashlie Ulstad recalls former Commissioner Hoyle calling to inform her that the business owner was not offended and instructed her to stop the investigation,” Mann says. “There are no further records of the investigation.”
Hoyle tells WW that she called Ulstad because “it seemed like an overreach to publicly rebuke a volunteer council member over what was, at worst, a bad joke. More importantly, it was my understanding that the people in the conversation did not take offense to the joke.”
Hoyle says she doesn’t recall telling Ulstad to stop the investigation, but adds, “I could understand if she interpreted it that way.”
Mann says BOLI has no evidence of a concluding report: “Typically, a concluding report would have been drafted that included recommendations and next steps. The file does not include such a report.”
The two findings from the investigative report add to questions about how much public business Hoyle conducted outside public scrutiny.
Twice earlier this year, BOLI’s new administration asked Hoyle to hand over her personal cellphones so that the agency could cull any texts related to state business. The agency knew she’d conducted state business on her personal devices. By law, those are public records.
As of press deadline, Hoyle had still not turned over her personal devices, saying she and her attorney will search them to determine what public records they contain. (Hoyle did recently return her BOLI-issued phone, the agency says.)
“She’s obligated to turn over those devices so they can be properly searched,” says Ginger McCall, who served as Oregon’s public records advocate for a year and a half, leaving in 2019. “I don’t think that the public should have to trust her to do her own search, because obviously there’s a conflict of interest there on her part.”