During the past several weeks, the issue of Texas Pacific Group's planned purchase of Portland General Electric has dominated headlines. What has received less attention is a related Oregon State Bar complaint involving a prominent Portland law firm. Documents released in the past weeks in the TPG case raise questions about the conduct of the firm, Ater Wynne.
Ater Wynne is the politically connected law firm that represented the City of Portland when it was pursuing a takeover of Portland General Electric in 2003. The firm, which has close connections to ex-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt (he rented office space from Ater Wynne), dropped the city as a client and took on Texas Pacific when that investment group announced in November 2003 that it-with Goldschmidt's help-would seek to buy PGE.
In 2004, a citizen filed a complaint with the state bar against Ater Wynne, alleging that the firm violated bar conflict-of-interest rules by abandoning one client who was trying to buy PGE-the City of Portland-for another, Texas Pacific.
At issue is whether Ater Wynne used information it obtained during its representation of the city to help Texas Pacific formulate strategy.
On Jan. 12, Ater Wynne responded to questions from the bar by insisting it didn't even know about Texas Pacific's interest in PGE until the day the deal was publicly announced.
Lawyer Brad Tellam, hired to represent Ater Wynne in the complaint, wrote, "The lawyers at Ater Wynne learned of Texas Pacific Group's intention to purchase PGE and Neil Goldschmidt's leading role in Oregon Electric-the vehicle created by TPG for the purchase-on November 18, 2003."
City Commissioner Erik Sten, who has spearheaded the city's effort to buy PGE, disputes this timing. He claims that Jonathan Ater, a co-founder of Ater Wynne who worked for the city in its effort to buy PGE, told Sten his firm learned of the bid at least as early as the weekend of Nov. 15.
"Jonathan told us that in a meeting on Nov. 18," Sten says. Kathleen Gardipee, an assistant of Sten's who was in the meeting, confirms Ater's comments.
Sten's recollection is supported by documents released last week by the Oregon Department of Justice, which was investigating the role of Neil Goldschmidt and his wife, Diana (who, as a member of the Oregon Investment Council, voted to invest $300 million in Texas Pacific). Justice Department investigators asked Texas Pacific partner Kelvin Davis who else knew about his firm's interest in acquiring PGE. Davis, according to the investigator's report, named several law firms-including Ater Wynne.
"Texas Pacific has no reason to believe Ater Wynne was aware of the deal prior to the announcement," says firm spokesman Owen Blicksilver. Although he hasn't seen the Justice Department documents, Blicksilver suggests Davis' comments were taken out of context or recorded inaccurately.
Tellam, Ater Wynne's attorney, disagrees both with Sten's recollections and the Justice Department investigation. "Ater Wynne was simply not involved on behalf of TPG before Nov. 18," he says.
Oregon State Bar officials say they have no timetable for completing their investigation.