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Oregon Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Lobbyists Giving Gifts to Public Officials

Published on December 31, 2009, by in General.

On December 31, the Oregon State Supreme Court issued an opinion in Vannatta v Oregon Government Ethics Commission, SC 057570. Here is the unanimous 19-page opinion. The opinion says that even though Oregon has a very strong free speech provision in its Constitution, the Constitution is not violated by an Oregon statute that makes it illegal for lobbyists to give public officials gifts of more than $50.

The opinion also says that a parallel law, making it a crime for a lobbyist to offer such a gift to a public official, is unconstitutional, because it violates free speech. The decision acknowledges that the right to offer such a gift is, practically speaking, of little significance, since the public official is legally required to refuse such a gift.

Finally, the decision says that the plaintiffs don’t have standing to challenge a third law, which makes it illegal for a public official to ask a lobbyist for a gift. None of the plaintiffs include public officials, and only a public official would have standing to challenge that law. Obviously it is extremely unlikely that any public official would ever file a lawsuit against that third law.

3 Responses

  1. The Oregon Supreme Court today issued its opinion in Vannatta v. Oregon Government Ethics Commission, in which lobbyists challenged the constitutionality of the limits on gifts, entertainment (meals, golf, etc.), and honoraria that (1) lobbyists (or anyone with a particular economic interest in government action, including legislation) can give to public officeholders or candidates for public office or (2) public officeholders or candidates can receive.

    Under a statute enacted in 2007, the limit on gifts from any person to any officeholder or candidate (or to their close relative) is $50 per year. Providing “entertainment” is limited to $50 per year per recipient. Honoraria (usually speaking fees) are limited to $50 per recipient per occasion.

    The Court upheld the limits on what public officeholders or candidates can receive as gifts, entertainment, or honoraria. The Court struck down those same limits as applied to what persons can offer to give to public officeholders or candidates. The result is that, while anyone can now offer unlimited gifts, entertainment, or honoraria, Oregon public officials and candidates cannot accept such offers which exceed the statutory limits. Thus, the offering becomes moot.

    An extensive amicus brief was filed by seven individual Oregon voters, several of whom were chief petitioners on the most recent statewide campaign finance reform initiatives (in 2006). This brief is available at http://fairelections.net/court/gifts

    While it is good that the Court upheld the limits, that will have little or no effect in practice. As our brief in the case demonstrated, the lobbyists can provide the same benefits to public officials and candidates (gifts, entertainment, and even honoraria in the form of consulting fees) in the form of “campaign contributions,” which the Legislature has chosen not to restrict. Some of the widely-publicized legislator luxury trips to Hawaii were actually paid for with campaign contributions, and today’s Court decision will not prevent such trips in the future. Until the Secretary of State or Attorney General starts enforcing Measure 47, enacted by the voters of Oregon in 2006, lobbyists can continue to use big money to buy influence with government.

    Oregon voters in 2006 enacted in Measure 47 the nation’s most comprehensive and strict system of limits on political campaign contributions and expenditures, including a ban on using campaign contributions for anything other than reaching voters during the campaign. But the Secretary of State and Attorney General of Oregon are refusing to enforce the limits. The Chief Petitioners on Measure 47 are suing those government officials to require them to enforce the law. That case is before the Oregon Court of Appeals. Until that law is enforced, Oregon remains effectively one of only 4 states without limits on campaign contributions, which in Oregon can be used for almost any purpose, including:

    1. for any campaign-related purpose, including taking extended luxury trips to Hawaii or elsewhere to meet with potential contributors;

    2. to pay “any expenses incurred in connection with the person’s duties as a holder of public office,” including unrestricted payments to friends or relatives for office work; and

    3. to repay to a candidate any loan the proceeds of which were used in connection with the candidate’s campaign.

    This last category means that a campaign contributions can be deposited directly into the personal bank account of the candidate or former candidate.

    In addition, campaign contributions have ended up in the pockets of sitting legislators. For example:

    “The political action committee for the House Republicans’ caucus reported Friday that it paid Rep. Karen Minnis, a caucus member, $2,700 for campaign consulting services this month. Minnis, R-Wood Village, donated $10,000 to the caucus’ PAC, Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, in December. She formed a consulting business, Karen Minnis and Associates, that month and the caucus committee has now paid her $15,500 for consulting services.” House Republicans Pay Minnis $2,700, Oregonian (August 23, 2008); http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2008/08/house_republicans_pay_minnis_2.html.

  2. […] Winger has the latest on the Oregon State Supreme Court’s opinion involving limitations on lobbyists’ gifts […]

  3. […] Access News reports that Oregon’s State Supreme Court has unanimously upheld a state law criminalizing gifts from […]

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