Bruce Conner, the cruise ship marketer for the Port of Astoria and the owner of Sundial Travel, used his official position to support his company and failed to properly disclose the conflict of interest, a state ethics investigation found.
Conner has marketed Astoria as a destination for cruise lines since 2008. His travel company also organizes tours approved by the cruise lines and pitched on board to passengers.
Conner took “official actions such as posting descriptions of his company’s shore excursions on the Port of Astoria’s website and communicating with cruise line shore excursion managers to gain support for a Port of Astoria policy that had the effect of prohibiting other tour operators from competing,” an investigation by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission concluded.
The Ethics Commission charged Conner with seven violations of public disclosure law: one for the improper use of confidential information, three for using his official position for financial gain and three for not disclosing conflicts of interest.
The investigation did not implicate any other public officials at the Port.
Conner called his interactions with the Ethics Commission enlightening in regards to his role as a public official with the Port and as a private businessman. He faces a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for each violation and has indicated he will settle rather than contest the charges.
“I think the change is that I’m going to be declaring a conflict of interest,” Conner said. “Any time that the Port of Astoria comes up in Sundial Travel, that’s going to be the change.”
The investigation started after a complaint filed by Brett Applegate, an attorney for Lori Beth Kulp, a tour operator who called foul on the arrangement between the Port and Conner. Kulp filed a previous ethics complaint last year and at one point contemplated a lawsuit over the Port’s relationship with Conner.
Over the past decade, Astoria has become a bigger cruise ship destination, hosting more than 40,000 passengers a year on average. Newer tour providers like Kulp and Bob Vinatieri of Astoria Tours have complained about the Port’s arrangement with Conner.
They protested the Port reserving pier access to tour operators — mostly Conner — who have agreements with cruise lines. Jim Knight, the Port’s former executive director, had argued the arrangement protects cruise line revenue and helps entice them to visit Astoria.
The investigation noted an email from Port counsel Eileen Eakins to Knight last year recommending the Port consider terminating Conner’s marketing contract. Conner “is not only being paid by the Port, but the work he is doing for the Port will have the direct effect of increasing tour sales for his company,” she wrote.
Will Isom, the Port’s interim executive director, said he will meet with Eakins and Conner to discuss the relationship moving forward. Conflicts of interest aren’t in themselves wrongdoing and could just require more disclosure, he said.
“My goal is just to protect the Port here,” Isom said. “At the same time, I don’t want to hang Bruce over this.”