When I was in the Oregon Legislature 20 years ago, I wrote an “insider baseball” perspective for EW on how ideas become bills, and how bills become laws. Out of office now for 12 years and retired for a year, some bills still piss me off.
Gov. Kate Brown has a credibility problem now that she can’t seem to shake. It’s like a zombie wolf. It was supposed to be a dead issue. House Bill 4040 passed during the 2016 legislative session and was signed into law by Brown over the objection of a majority of Oregon House and Senate Democrats, one principled Democratic congressman and most Oregon animal rights advocates and conservation groups.
Now, months later, the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Government Ethics Commission weighed in, and so has our grumpy congressman.
Let’s recap our wolf’s weary wanderings. In 2015, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission removed the re-introduced gray wolf from the state’s endangered species list even though it had already been hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. Three conservation groups (Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Wild) sued to stop the de-listing, calling it premature. Immediately following the lawsuit, three Oregon legislators (Sal Esquivel, Greg Barreto and Brad Witt) and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association drafted HB 4040: a bill which made the commission’s 2015 delisting decision a law, in order to block judicial review. Esquivel, Barreto and Witt then lied to their colleagues during House debate over the bill. They swore up and down that HB 4040 was not intended to impact any litigation or request for review of the delisting. At the same time, when asked, Kate Brown said her office was “neutral” on the bill. By the time it got to the Senate, everyone’s story started to unravel, and the bill passed.
Many of us who were told about Kate’s “neutrality” on this issue assumed she would veto HB 4040. But she didn’t. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a “notice of probable mootness” soon after HB 4040 was signed into law, prompting the case’s dismissal on those grounds on April 22. The conservation groups appealed that decision and additionally asked the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for an investigation into the three legislators for knowingly misleading their colleagues about the real intent of HB 4040.
This prompted Congressman Peter DeFazio to send Kate a June 9 letter that accused the governor of contradictory statements about the bill. DeFazio said Brown’s office advocated on behalf of the bill’s passage, at the same time that she stated publicly she would not advocate for or against the bill.
The conservation groups pursued the “mootness” decision to the Court of Appeals and argued that HB 4040 was an overreach by the Legislature into judicial matters and therefore potentially unconstitutional.
Now, the two latest decisions issued this month move the case back to the courts for review … and apparently allow public officials to continue lying to each other. The Oregon Court of Appeals has decided to reconsider the lawsuit against the state.
In her decision, Judge Erika Hadlock wrote: “The issues presented by this judicial review and by HB 4040 are complex matters of public importance … Without deciding what, if any, effect HB 4040 has on this judicial review, the court determines that the issues of possible mootness and the validity of HB 4040 are more appropriately decided by a department of the court following full briefing.”
Then on July 1, the Government Ethics Commission ruled that the conduct of the three legislators in deliberately lying about their intention with HB 4040 was not technically “misconduct.” Generally, state ethics laws ban lobbyists and public officials from knowingly providing false or misleading statements to other public officials.
But the commission dismissed the complaints because lawmakers who lie to other lawmakers can only be held accountable by other lawmakers.
Apparently, the Oregon Constitution “permits legislators to lie with impunity to their colleagues,” a Cascadia Wildlands spokesperson said.
Esquivel and Barreto, the two Republicans, issued a press release afterwards calling the complaint “frivolous.” Nowhere in the press release did they deny that they lied! (Witt, the Democrat, remained silent.) Once again, Kate’s left with some explaining to do.
And now it gets worse: Last week the U.S. House passed Congressman Greg Walden’s bill to remove all protections for the gray wolf at the federal level. Walden apparently flunked Conservation Biology 101, whose fundamental essence is that populations of any species must not become fragmented or they will become extinct.
So the wolf lives … for now. Stay tuned.