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Investigation based on complaint by Multnomah Commissioner's staffer; Smith calls 'minor issue'

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The Oregon Secretary of State has proposed fining Multnomah Commissioner Loretta Smith $250 for three election-law violations as she runs for Portland City Council.The Oregon Secretary of State's office plans to fine Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith $250 after investigating a complaint that her staffers were made to work on her campaign events, but says several allegations could not be proven.

While the fine is small, it's significant because it comes as Smith is campaigning for another office. Facing county term limits, she has declared that she is running for Portland City Council, though she has not formally filed.

On Monday afternoon, the state notified Smith that it had found sufficient evidence to prove three violations, but "insufficient evidence" to prove other allegations. However, the state's investigation was hampered by a reluctance of potential witnesses to talk, state elections director Stephen Trout wrote in a letter to Smith.

"Some witnesses expressed concern of retaliation if they provided information for this investigation," he wrote.

It's clear that members of her staff volunteered at political events, and some did so willingly, he wrote, but whether all of them truly considered it voluntary is "not as clear."

Though the Secretary of State review was launched at Smith's request, she issued a statement characterizing the fine as politically influenced.

"From the beginning I believed this process was politically motivated," she stated, "so I am gratified that the Secretary of State found no evidence of any violations except a single minor issue. We have already taken corrective action to address it while also remaining completely focused on being a strong voice for the most vulnerable in our community."

In the end, the violations found by the Secretary of State included three instances where Smith staffers were asked during her county staff meetings whether they wanted to volunteer at particular political events.

In one such meeting, in October 2015, one witness testified that she participated in a senior breakfast even though it was her anniversary, because "she believed (she) had little choice in the matter," Trout wrote.

The investigation by the Secretary of State centered on a letter that the county received from Smith staffer MeeSeon Kwon on Jan. 22, 2017, that was first reported by Willamette Week. In it, Kwon accused Smith of bullying behavior, misuse of county funds, and of compelling her and other employees to staff political fundraisers and other events.

The county subsequently paid Kwon $23,000 to settle a potential lawsuit.

After Kwon's accusations were echoed by another former Smith staffer, Saba Saleem, an investigation conducted by an outside consultant to the county found that the allegations could not be proven, but that the pattern of statements by witnesses suggested the behavior likely occurred.

Smith, who initially had asked the county to investigate, subsequently filed a tort claim notice, essentially a threat of lawsuit, trying to block it, portraying it as "prompted by racially biased and political motives" and saying it reflected county Chair Deborah Kafoury trying to take out a political rival. After its release, Smith's allies signed a letter calling the report racially motivated.

On Tuesday, Smith similarly said the Secretary of State fine based on Kwon's complaint was "the result of a strategy" by Kafoury "to hurt me politically. I am glad this investigation is behind me, but we have substantial work to do at the county and elsewhere to combat racial bias."

Kafoury had rejected the claim that the county's earlier outside investigation was agenda-driven, saying that as county chair, she had a responsibility to address the concerns of workplace misconduct raised by employees.

Following Smith's latest comment, she responded that "These concerns were first raised by members of Commissioner Smith's own staff, and Commissioner Smith publicly requested the Secretary of State conduct an investigation. That the elections division found Commissioner Smith guilty of three violations of election law should be the focus of her response instead of blaming others for her misconduct."

Kwon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the investigation.

The fine comes as Smith has said she is running to succeed Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. The seat figures to be hotly contested, with former lawmaker Jo Ann Hardesty, City Hall staffer Andrea Valderrama, and business manager and neighborhood activist Felicia Williams having filed to run. Spencer Raymond, a business owner and neighborhood activist, has also said he is running.

Under state election rules, Smith has the right to request a hearing to contest the fine.

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