When recently retired state Rep. Deborah Boone began pushing a bill in January to prevent news media “fishing expeditions” for public records, people wondered what she meant.
An example of the types of requests Boone says have bothered her: one that yielded 1,800 pages of her own correspondence, released to The Oregonian days before the bill’s introduction.
The records show the lawmaker using her state email account to intercede with state agencies on problems that affected her family.
In one email, she asked for help resolving a billing issue at her home from a utility lobbyist who wanted her help on the state’s climate change bill.
Senate Bill 609 was introduced by state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, on Boone’s behalf. It would require Oregonians requesting public records like police reports, public contracts and workplace safety inspections to first provide a good reason why they want the documents. Oregon records law currently does not require people to justify their requests.
Boone has since said she’s asked Johnson to let the bill die in the face of vocal opposition.
Boone, a Democrat who represented Cannon Beach and the North Coast until January, told The Daily Astorian she wanted only “legitimate” requests to advance. She didn’t say what would constitute a legitimate request or who would decide.
Boone said in an interview this week that she had already asked for the bill to be drafted before receiving The Oregonian’s records request. But she said the newsroom’s request concerned her, questioning “the cost and necessity” of producing the emails.
“The taxpayers had to pay a Legislative Counsel employee to sift through them all,” Boone said.
Corporate campaign donors
A reporter requested Boone’s emails during a soon-to-be-released 18-month investigation examining the role that corporate campaign donors play in shaping environmental policy statewide.
At the time of the request, Boone had declined to comment about why she raised money in 2018 after announcing her retirement from the Legislature. With no active campaign to pay for, the donations appeared to be attempts to influence or reward her votes.
The newsroom requested Boone’s emails with the campaign donors. Boone now says any checks that arrived were not a result of active fundraising on her part or had not been deposited yet when she announced her retirement in January 2018.
The content of the former representative’s emails underscores why Oregon’s public records law exists. The law allows the public to see what their elected officials are doing, even when it’s not what those officials would choose to reveal.
Last January, Boone asked Ted Case, executive director of Oregon’s association of rural electricity providers, for input on the state’s emerging legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions.
The 2018 legislative session was about to begin, and there was a push to get the bill through. (The cap-and-trade legislation ultimately died and is now before the 2019 Legislature.) Lobbyists were rushing to secure loopholes for their members.
Case told Boone he wanted to ensure an exemption for the West Oregon Electric Cooperative, which provides power in Boone’s district, including to her home in rural Hamlet.
“My board meets next week to discuss the bills,” Case told Boone. “We’ll come by and see you!”
Thirteen days later, Boone’s campaign account recorded a $500 donation from Case’s association.
A month later, Boone ran into trouble transferring her name onto her late husband’s account with West Oregon. She turned to Case, the utility lobbyist. “You have been a marvelous legislator and a great friend. I’m on it,” Case responded.
A utility board member soon gave Boone an apology — “We do our best not to screw things up, but sometimes it seems otherwise” — and asked whether Boone would be interested in a seat on West Oregon’s board. She did not pursue the position.
In a written statement, Case said his inquiry on Boone’s behalf was “a service I provide to any Oregonian who has questions about their electric co-op.”
The keywords that the newsroom used in its request for Boone’s emails inadvertently turned up exchanges with people who were not campaign donors.
Boone’s daughter, Wendy, asked for her mom’s help in 2017 when the Oregon Health Plan was slow to pay for prescriptions at the Rinehart Clinic, a small nonprofit medical clinic in Wheeler where she is chief financial officer.
“Hello Rep Boone :),” her daughter wrote in her email to Boone’s state account. “Rinehart is having issues getting OHP to pay ... Can you assist us?”
Boone told The Oregonian she had an aide call the state health authority to find out what was happening. “I never pushed it, never,” she said. The issue was on its way to being resolved before the call, Boone said. But she acknowledged, “It might’ve looked to you like I asked for a favor and got it.”
Wendy Boone also asked for her mother’s help when her daughter was rejected by Oregon Promise, a state financial aid program for community college. The lawmaker’s legislative aide sent an email to the state Department of Education, noting that the issue affected a member of Boone’s family.
“Rep. Boone would like to know why the student did not qualify,” her aide wrote. “Rep. Boone has also heard from others who are having the same problem. Could you please let us know as soon as possible what, if anything, can be done about this?”
The legislative director for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission explained that the student had missed a deadline and could reapply the next year. But the agency official also wanted to know: What other problems had the representative heard about?
Boone’s aide didn’t say.
Both the lawmaker and her daughter told The Oregonian that their emails were routine inquiries from a state representative on behalf of a constituent. “That’s not asking for a favor,” Deborah Boone said. “That’s what we do: We contact state agencies and people in them.”
“The information received provided the clarification I was seeking, and that was the end of it,” Wendy Boone said.
In Deborah Boone’s comments to The Daily Astorian, she said she was aware of media requests to lawmakers taking time and money to fulfill. The process could go easier if reporters “would just be honest and say, ‘This is what I’m trying to get at.’ I get that they want to be vague to capture everything, but maybe they don’t have to.”
After a media outcry, including a harshly worded editorial in the Astorian, Boone’s records bill appears dead. She says she told Johnson the bill wasn’t worth it.
“I said, ‘If it’s going to be like this, I don’t want to do it,’” Boone told the newsroom. “I don’t want to cause more stress and strain on her office. I said, ‘I’m not going to die on my sword for this one.’”