WashCo auditor makes misleading claims in Voters' Pamphlet
Facing his first contested race in years, John Hutzler wanted voters to know that, according to the Beaverton Valley Times, he is the "clear choice" to continue on as Washington County's longtime auditor.
Hutzler quoted approving remarks about him from both the Valley Times and the Hillsboro News-Times in his statement for the Washington County Voters' Pamphlet. He attributed them to the newspapers, albeit referring to the News-Times as the "Hillsboro Tribune," a name under which it has not been published since 2019.
The problem? The excerpts that Hutzler quoted were actually taken from a letter to the editor in support of Hutzler.
Hutzler's statement in the Voters' Pamphlet doesn't identify the author of the quotes, giving the appearance that those papers, owned by Pamplin Media Group, had made supportive comments about Hutzler's run.
The quotes Hutzler used were from a letter to the editor that was published on March 3 in both the Times and the News-Times. The letter, written by Aloha resident Eric Squires, states, "John Hutzler is the clear choice to remain Washington County auditor."
The title of the letter, which was generated by a Pamplin Media Group editor to introduce Squires' opinion — standard practice when an opinion piece is submitted without a suggested headline — reads: "John Hutzler is an asset to county." This quote is modified slightly in the version Hutzler used, stating he is "an asset to Washington County."
As stated in the Times and the News-Times' opinion policies, published weekly alongside readers' letters, letters to the editor and other signed opinion pieces do not represent the opinion of the newspapers' editorial board.
No Pamplin Media Group newspaper has endorsed Hutzler in this year's election.
Hutzler, who is Washington County's top accountability official and was first elected in 2010, says he didn't intend to cause confusion. In an email to Pamplin Media Group, he claimed he was following the instructions from the "Joint County Voters' Pamphlet Candidate Statement" form that candidates are asked to fill out for the Voters' Pamphlet, which is issued by the Washington County Elections Division for every election and is taxpayer-funded.
"I listed Pamplin Media outlets to indicate the source of publication/dissemination of the statements, not to attribute the statements themselves to Pamplin Media or its editorial board or to indicate that Pamplin Media had endorsed me," Hutzler said in an email. "I did not say that 'the paper said this about me.'"
He concluded, "I understand your concern and regret any misunderstanding that may have resulted from my attempt to adhere strictly to the instructions for including published quotes as I understood them."
Candidate filings forms, including the JCVP-01 form to which Hutzler refers, can be found on the Washington County elections website.
The quotes from Squires' letter, again attributed simply to the Beaverton Valley Times and the Hillsboro Tribune, also appear on Hutzler's website.
After Pamplin Media raised this concern to Hutzler on Thursday, April 14, he removed the attribution from the quotes online, although the quotes themselves remain. It's too late to edit the Voters' Pamphlet, which is already set to be mailed to county residents this month.
Continuing to suggest the instructions for candidate statements are confusing, Hutzler told Pamplin Media that he has raised that concern with Washington County officials.
Because the instructions are made through a multi-county review process — including Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas and Yamhill counties — any revision to the instructions would require review by each county's elections division.
"My goal is to improve the county elections process, not to assign fault," Hutzler added.
Hutzler's opponent in the election — Kristine Adams-Wannberg, who is Washington County's principal management auditor and works under Hutzler — told Pamplin Media that she had the same instructions and didn't share Hutzler's interpretation.
"What I got out of that was that I need to identify the actual source," she said of the instructions. "If it was a published source like the media, that I should put down who actually said it. If it was the editorial board of Pamplin Media, then it would be more appropriate to attribute it to a publication."
Adams-Wannberg said she noticed the misleading statement in the Voters' Pamphlet prior to being contacted by Pamplin Media. She posted about it on her campaign's official Facebook page on April 7, calling out the misrepresentation of the quotes from Squires' letter.
"As the chief accountability officer for the county … he should be truthful about his information and not mislead people. And that causes me to question a lot of the prior work he's done," she said. "And to just blame the instructions is very misleading."
Official: No laws broken
Asked about the misleading attribution of the quotes, a state official told Pamplin Media that Hutzler doesn't appear to have broken Oregon elections law.
Oregon's election guidelines state that making a false statement in a voter's guide is a violation of the law "and the candidate may be convicted of a Class C felony."
Pamplin Media made a request for review of Hutzler's candidate statement to the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.
Ben Morris, communications director for the office, noted that the applicable state law is ORS 260.715(1), which prohibits false or misleading claims. But the law doesn't apply to the candidate statement itself, he told Pamplin Media.
"The statute … only applies to the biographical background information that candidates file, such as educational and professional background," Morris said in an email. "The body of the statement is not covered."
"We don't believe there is a violation of the statute here," he concluded. "Election officials, both our agency and the county, do not have authority over the content in the body of a candidate's voter pamphlet statement."
In the Voters' Pamphlet statement, there is a disclaimer in bold font that reads: "The above information has not been verified for accuracy by the county."
Washington County spokesperson Philip Bransford says that disclaimer is a requirement of Oregon elections law.
"The law provides no ability for the county to correct a false statement," Bransford added, without weighing in on whether or not Hutzler's use of misattributed quotes crosses that line.
He added, "While false statements are unfortunate, the state has made clear that the remedy is the political system, and not the government, that should police such statements."
Hutzler is seeking his fourth term as the county auditor.
The May primary election will be held on May 17. If either candidate for auditor receives a majority of votes, they are elected outright. If neither candidate receives a majority, they move to a runoff in the November general election.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.