The Portland city auditor found this week that the Portland Business Alliance violated the city’s lobbying rules 25 times in the past year by failing to disclose emails, texts and letters exchanged with city officials, including the office of Mayor Ted Wheeler.
The auditor imposed a $450 fine and recommended that staff be trained to avoid violating rules again.
The violations show that the PBA, the city’s chamber of commerce, failed to disclose mostly emails, along with a smattering of texts and letters, exchanged in lobbying efforts surrounding a variety of issues: homelessness, financial aid to shuttered businesses, property damage cleanup, neighborhood livability and climate policy.
The audit was launched after Oregon Public Broadcasting pointed out in February what seemed like an odd lack of email and text disclosures from the association in its public records.
Ten of the 25 violations detailed occurred in less than 45 days stretching from October through December.
Amy Lewin, spokeswoman for the PBA, tells WW the organization takes the penalty seriously and is going to investigate the undisclosed communications. (Disclosure: The 1,900 member businesses of the PBA include WW’s parent company.)
“As greater Portland’s Chamber of Commerce, it’s normal for our teams to work closely with city staff and leaders, especially during an unprecedented year such as this, to communicate and build resiliency in our community, and we take our role in this public-private partnership very seriously,” Lewin said. “We will be carefully reviewing this letter and transparently working with the auditor’s office to clarify each and every exchange.”
Lewin said that the unreported communications were in not intentional: “As our filed reports show, the alliance reported hundreds of interactions with city officials during 2020. As you can imagine, this year has been like no other, and the volume of work we’ve participated in to meet the need on behalf of the entire community is enormous.”
Entities involved in lobbying efforts are required to disclose communications on a quarterly basis. As OPB noted, this is only the second fine ever issued by the city for a violation. (The first was to ride hailing giant Uber.)
The penalty is significant in part because Wheeler’s narrow reelection victory in November was largely bankrolled by business interests, which were simultaneously making policy demands of his office that they failed to disclose to the public.
Most of the properly reported communications were between the alliance and the mayor’s office, his staffers, and city commissioners. Most were documented as meetings and telephone calls, which raised questions about additional emails and texts that weren’t disclosed.
Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, issued an equivocal statement: “We value the significant contributions the Portland Business Alliance and its individual employer members are making to the city’s recovery from the virus-caused recession, and expect all lobbying groups will meet both the spirit and the letter of reporting obligations.”