What is 'confidential' in state government?

    Hold on there, folks! Somebody's got some explaining to do. One political party accusing another of ethics violations during the campaign season is just more political posturing and really doesn't get us any closer to discussing the issues. Hardly worth the ink to print the story, but ...

    The Oregon Republican Party's Greg Leo said a Democratic party fundraiser violates Oregon Revised Statute 244.040 "prohibiting public officials from seeking personal gain through use of confidential information gained in office." Well, that got my attention. So I looked up ORS 244.040 and found the following:

    "(5) A person who has ceased to be a public official may not attempt to further or further the personal gain of any person through the use of confidential information gained in the course of or by reason of holding position as a public official or the activities of the person as a public official."

    So you might think I'm wondering how a party fundraiser featuring incumbent politicians fits the description of "A person who has ceased to be a public officia l"…" Not really, though it sure takes the wind out of the sails of Leo's argument. And one might wonder how a party fundraiser can be seen as "personal gain," and I'm sure a few lawyers will find an excess of billable hours to debate that point.

    No, what really got me wondering is what kind of "confidential information" is being discussed by our public officials. Why should any of the public's business be "confidential?"

    Is it the legislative agenda, set months before the session by committees and work groups so our part-time legislature has an agenda when it meets? Since proposed legislation is discussed in public, particularly during an election cycle, that can't be it. Or is the agenda "confidential" because it's being discussed at a political fundraiser? Political parties have big annual gatherings at resort facilities to discuss candidates, campaigns and agendas, so does that make it "confidential?"

    Is the State budget "confidential?" Are those of us who pay to fund government activities somehow restricted from knowing what's going on? Is there some special fund being raided or protected that is shielded from public review?

    The legislative calendar, the assignment to committees, the changing, passing or elimination of laws, none of these should be "confidential information" to the citizens. Try as I might, I can't see anything about operating a government of, by and for the people that permits "confidential information."

    Attorney General John Kroger has launched the Government Transparency Initiative in partnership with the Oregon Newspaper Publishers' Association. A few weeks ago he hosted a meeting in Jackson County to discuss that initiative. Not once during that meeting did I hear "confidential information." So why do we even have a law that talks about "confidential information" in our government?

    Having worked in both government and private industry, I recognize that there are contracts and negotiations that should be confidential until completed to keep the process fair. But those activities are carried out by agencies, not by politicians. Politicians may be aware of those negotiations, and probably should be in their role of overseeing government operations. Still, I sincerely doubt either party should be discussing specific contracting details at political fundraisers, particularly during an election cycle. Perhaps, though, that is what is happening, and these fundraisers are just a front for showing favor to big timber, environmentalists, transportation companies, farmers, etc. etc. etc. It seems unlikely, but many of us believe it happens. Which makes me wonder if this "ethics violation" isn't the pot calling the kettle black.

    Then again, I'm an information hound. I believe we should heed the words of Thomas Jefferson, "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." So when we see the politicians and the media telling us our government has "confidential information," we must act to preserve our liberties and demand to know what part of our government's work is "confidential."

    Jack Duggan is a former public information specialist living in the Applegate.

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