A powerful state commissioner acts as if rules are only for other people.
In Oregon, Brad Avakian is the regulator-in-chief. As the commissioner of the powerful Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), Avakian educates companies on the state’s complex set of employment laws and assesses fines for non-compliance. He also advocates tax hikes and aggressive audits of Oregon’s private sector entrepreneurs, employers, and corporations.
So, how does Brad Avakian fair on an audit of his own governance and public records?
Public records show that Avakian has a ‘compliance for thee, but not for me’ attitude. Avakian enjoys cracking down on the private sector but is flagrantly mixing public and campaign funds and functions as he tries to move-up to Secretary of State in this election cycle. Consider the following:
- Avakian’s official state calendar displays his 2016 campaign website and email address.
- Responding to an open records request for his official state calendar, Avakian redacted 672 events during the last 20 months, here and here. State law only allows redactions for personal appointments (i.e. doctors’ appointments).
- 988 events were also redacted from the official state calendars of three key BOLI administrators who work for Avakian.
- These three BOLI administrators (state employees) got $3,500 in total bonuses from their boss’ campaign fund, the Committee to Elect Brad Avakian. Two of the three executives also gave Avakian campaign donations.
- Avakian’s Executive Assistant and his 2011 campaign manager posted 18 political endorsements of his boss on social media during official BOLI business hours.
- According to salary records at OpenTheBooks.com, those same state employees also received BOLI increases in compensation.
In July, Oregon’s Capitol Watch organization asked Avakian to produce official calendars, credit card statements and travel/reimbursement records. Avakian’s agency stalled for three months, then not only redacted much of the responsive records, but also charged the non-profit group $1,300 for the documents.
This week, our organization at OpenTheBooks.com gave oversight to Commissioner Avakian’s state bureau. Here are some highlights:
Charlie Burr, the BOLI Communications Director redacted 241 events from his own official state calendar during an eight-month period in 2015 when he claimed zero personal days on official time sheets. In total, over a 20-month period, Burr redacted 639 events. In 2014, Charlie Burr received $3,000 in bonus payments from the Avakian campaign fund, despite the campaign admitting to a lack of details: ‘general operation expenses – need description.’
Between 2014 and 2015, Burr’s state salary at BOLI increased from $69,245 to $74,509 – far outpacing inflation and other BOLI employee salary increases. Violating basic ethics, Avakian accepted $400 in campaign donations from his employee Burr just ten days before his May 17, 2016 primary.
Jesse Bontecou, Avakian’s Executive Assistant since November 2013, wrote 18 social media posts on Facebook during official BOLI business hours (8am to 5pm) endorsing or advocating the election of Avakian as Secretary of State in 2016. In an eight-month period between November 2015 and July 2016, 76 events were redacted from Bontecou’s official BOLI calendar, despite only one-hour of personal time disclosed on his BOLI time sheets.
Just four months after accepting state employment at BOLI, Bontecou started receiving Avakian campaign payments totaling $1,000 including a $500 bonus two-days ahead of Christmas 2014. Bontecou also gave campaign donations to his boss totaling $220.
In May 2014, Avakian hired Paloma Sparks as the BOLI Legislative Director (salary: $71,222). Two days ahead of Christmas 2014, Sparks received a $500 campaign bonus from her state agency boss – Brad Avakian – for political work. Why was the new BOLI legislative director receiving bonus payments from her boss out of his campaign fund? Moreover, during a six month period in 2016, 94 events were redacted from Spark’s official calendar despite her claim of zero personal days on her official time sheets.
The fact is that Avakian refused to separate his public business at BOLI from his campaign business. BOLI’s redaction of 1,660 entries (personal appointments, i.e. for a doctor) on the calendars of Avakian and his three administrators in response to an open records request is evidence that there’s a lot to hide.
Our audit of Brad Avakian’s governance shows a repeated pattern of questionable ethics and public trust violations, with allegations leading to potential violations of established Oregon law.
Rather than focusing on waste, fraud and taxpayer abuse within state agencies, instead, Avakian’s 2016 campaign platform would vastly expand the authority of the Secretary of State’s office to audit private sector employers. This platform – and Avakian’s ethical double standards – should upset progressives, independents and conservatives.
In 2016, Oregon might be a national bellwether. Will blue state voters cast ballots to keep politicians honest or will they defend the status quo? Oregon voters are an independent bunch and just might be fed up with politicians blurring legal and ethical lines for personal, political gain.
Adam Andrzejewski is CEO of OpenTheBooks.com – the world’s largest private database of government spending.