When Portland State University embarked on what would eventually became a $350,000 campus lighting upgrade, The Vanguard student newspaper offered a glowing report. PSU officials touted the new LED lights as brighter, greener and more efficient. They would make campus safer and save the university money.
"There are many benefits in replacing these outdated light fixtures," PSU's planning director Dan Zalkow told the paper in November 2013, "and it's really impressive the amount of work the electrical staff has done.â
This enthusiasm dimmed when an anonymous whistleblower complained to the Oregon Secretary of State's office that a PSU employee working on the project parlayed the PSU deal into a job as a sales rep with SimplyLEDs, the Idaho company selling PSU the light fixtures.
The state forwarded the complaint to PSU, where officials launched an investigation. The internal audit, which WW got through a public records request, confirmed a PSU employee in the facilities department, "entered into a contractual commission agreement" with SimplyLEDs on Jan. 8, 2014. But officials mostly brushed it away, saying the employee didn't get paid to sell to PSU and, in fact, had only accepted $115 in one meal reimbursement.
Still, the February 2015 report called the arrangement a clear conflict of interest. The employee, the report said, "could potentially personally benefit from the commission agreement by using their PSU job title when they recommended SimplyLEDs products to other businesses." It called on the employee to end his job as a SimplyLED sales rep.
The internal audit did not identify the employee by name. A spokesman for PSU, Scott Gallagher, declined to provide a name or say whether the employee was disciplined.
The Vanguard article names two people who led the lighting project, electrician Ryan Roberts and Mick Nelson, electrical supervisor. Roberts initially agreed to an interview, then declined to return follow-up phone calls. Nelson did not respond to a request for an interview.
In the November 2013 Vanguard article about the project, Roberts crowed about the lights, calling the project "awesome."