By Hillary Borrud
Did staffers for Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian volunteer for Avakian's campaign while on the clock at the Bureau of Labor and Industries? That's the question asked — but not answered — in an article published on Forbes.com Monday.
Avakian, a Democrat, is in a tight race against Republican Dennis Richardson for Secretary of State. According to recent poll results, the two are in a dead heat
A contributor to Forbes.com reported
that Avakian's state executive assistant, who has volunteered for his campaign, posted Avakian campaign information on social media during business hours at the Bureau of Labor and Industries.
The article also raised questions about extensive redactions to copies of Avakian and three of his employees' calendars that were released by the agency in response to a public records request earlier this year: 672 events redacted from Avakian's calendar over the last 20 months, and 988 events redacted from the calendars of three of Avakian's employees at the Bureau of Labor and Industries.
When public officials release copies of their calendars, they're allowed to black out personal appointments such as doctor's visits. Elected officials also commonly redact campaign activities.
Two of the staffers who volunteered for Avakian's campaign said on Monday that they always did so on their own time, or made up the work time later if they volunteered during work hours. Charlie Burr, spokesman for the Bureau of Labor and Industries, said he volunteered for Avakian's campaign in 2015 and this year, as did Legislative Director Paloma Sparks and Avakian's executive assistant Jesse Bontecou.
"We're not neutral observers," Burr said. "We have a point of view. But we don't do that in any official capacity."
Specifically, Burr said "we do not conduct campaign activities or staff Brad or help him in his campaign when we're on the clock for BOLI ... I'm the board chair of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. I have a point of view. I just don't use public resources to engage in political activity." The Oregon League of Conservation Voters is among the groups that have endorsed Avakian in the secretary of state's race
Molly Woon, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Secretary of State's office, confirmed state employees can work on political campaigns as long as they do so on their own time.
"As long as a public employee does not participate in political activities during work time, it is allowable for them to work on campaign matters," Woon wrote in an email.
Burr said it was permissible for Bontecou to post Avakian campaign videos and other materials on social media during business hours, as long as Bontecou did so during a break. Bontecou also brought his personal computer to the office, Sparks said. However, despite many personal events redacted from his calendar between November 2015 and July 2016, Bontecou only reported taking one hour of personal time during that period.
The Forbes.com article also pointed out that Avakian paid Burr, Sparks and Bontecou from his political action committee in 2014. Burr and Sparks described the payments given in December 2014 as end-of-year bonuses, although Burr and Bontecou were also paid by Avakian's campaign in March 2014. Burr received a total of $3,000, Bontecou $1,000 and Sparks $500.
The practice of using campaign funds to award bonuses is not unusual, at least not in the Oregon Legislature. "You can only pay a certain amount of wages," said Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, who was also a candidate for Secretary of State in the Democratic primary earlier this year. "A lot of us — not campaign related — we'd supplement people's wages with a bonus or extra money from a campaign account."
The public records requests for the calendars and other information were originally filed by the group Oregon Capitol Watch, whose stated goal is to identify government waste through activities such as handing out an annual "porker award."
Burr said the reason the calendars contained so many personal items that had to be redacted was that they were Gmail calendars that he and the other staffers used for both work and personal appointments.
"We use Gmail calendars so we can know what each of us is doing, and also because we keep Brad Avakian's calendar there so we're not scheduling him to be in two places at one time," Burr said. "It's not to avoid transparency."