Oregon District Attorney’s Association Email Raises Ethics Questions In Salem

The letter opposes a bill that would walk back mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for juvenile defendants.

Oregon State Capitol (Edmund Garman)

An Oregon Department of Justice employee used an agency email and agency time to send a memo lobbying against a criminal justice reform bill senators will consider this week.

That email, sent by a state Justice Department employee on behalf of the Oregon District Attorney's Association kill the bill, made waves in Salem April 15.

State Sen. Brian Boquist (R-Dallas) says the message likely violates Oregon ethics laws and the state's district attorneys should have known better than to ask a state employee to lobby on their behalf.

“If the lawyers who are supposed to enforce the laws aren’t obeying the laws themselves,” Boquist says, “then there’s no credibility to the district attorneys themselves or to justice.”

The memo voiced opposition to Senate Bill 1008, a package of reforms to the juvenile justice system that would walk back mandatory minimum sentencing requirements established in Measure 11. ODAA argues that changes to Measure 11 should be made through a ballot measure referred to voters, since that is how the law was originally passed.

That stance is in direct conflict with the Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum's public stance on the bill. Rosenblum has thrown her support behind the reforms. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the co-owner of WW's parent company.)

"The time has come for us to engage in a deep and critical reflection on the fairness of our juvenile justice system," Rosenblum testified at a bill hearing last month.

Boquist says the email, sent from a DOJ address, raises concerns that the ODAA intended to confuse legislators about whether the bill had the backing of the attorney general.

Michelle Long, the Justice Department employee who sent the email, is the DA Resource Coordinator for the DOJ. She works closely with the state's 36 district attorneys. She did not immediately return a request for comment.

The Justice Department quickly distanced themselves from Long's email.

"[Long] does not advocate on behalf of positions taken by ODAA," a DOJ spokeswoman says.

In an email sent to lawmakers by deputy attorney general Fred Boss, the DOJ acknowledged that the message was a mistake and assured state senators that similar lobbying messages would not be sent by state employees at the agency.

"Earlier today our DA Resource Coordinator sent you an e-mail on behalf of the Oregon District Attorneys Association at their request," Boss wrote. "I apologize – DOJ did not authorize the use of e-mail or work time to send the message.  Please be assured we are addressing the issue and it will not happen again."

Boquist says the message may have violated Oregon ethics laws that restrict public employees from using government resources to lobby the legislature.

"The use of public funds to lobby for the passage of a measure remains a violation of the law," he said in an email. "We should all hope lawyers would at least try to follow the laws of Oregon."

UPDATE: The Oregon District Attorney's Association says it did not intend to confuse legislators about the DOJ's position on the bill.

"There was absolutely no strategy to put DOJ in a bad light here," says ODAA executive director Tim Colahan. "The attachment clearly stated it was from the District Attorneys. We needed to get an email out and the ODAA Resource Coordinator did so. This is a symptom of not having a lobbyist."

ODAA lost its lobbyist last month after a former top prosecutor penned an op-ed that offended many legislators.

Colahan also says it was not improper for Long to send the email.

"We also question whether what was done was improper," he says in an email. "The Secretary of State's 'Restrictions on Political Campaigning by Public Officials – ORS 260.432' manual, on page 9, states: 'Legislative bills are not covered by ORS 260.432. Therefore it is allowable, under election law, for public employees to lobby governing bodies. Once a referral has been certified to the ballot, political advocacy is restricted by ORS 260.432.' SB 1008 is a legislative bill."

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