PPS lawyer who lacked Oregon law license now has one
Jim Harris, the former general counsel for Portland Public Schools, has been admitted to the Oregon State Bar.
That's despite the fact that the Oregon State Bar charged him April 25 with ethics violations connected to the five months he worked as the district's top lawyer without being given the official OK to practice in Oregon. Those disciplinary proceedings are ongoing and a decision is expected by the end of the year.
Now that he has returned to work as general counsel for the Housing Authority of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania, Harris said he hoped for positive coverage of this news and blasted The Oregonian for its coverage of him last fall.
"The article was deliberate," Harris said when asked why he did not request retractions to what he saw as errors in that news organization's coverage. Licensed in Pennsylvania and New York, he said that it was well known and accepted in the school district that he was in the process of applying for a reciprocal license to practice in Oregon.
Oregonian education editor Betsy Hammond defended her team's reporting. "Obviously it is newsworthy any time the top lawyer for Portland Public Schools is under investigation by the state Bar. We would cover that story and treat it as significant, regardless of who is in the general counsel role," Hammond said, adding: "Mr. Harris did not bring to our attention any inaccuracy in our coverage."
Admittance to the Oregon Bar means that Harris passed the test the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners has to determine that a person is of "good moral character" and is fit to be a lawyer in Oregon.
A trial panel of the Oregon Disciplinary Board is expected to answer a slightly different question this fall to see if he broke any rules.
"The tests for those two processes are different," said Kateri Walsh, the Oregon Bar's spokeswoman.
The disciplinary case may center in part on the definition of the word "practice," as Harris has argued that he was not quite practicing law and therefore it was OK to work while his application was pending. He argues that Oregon's rules effectively allow for someone to work temporarily while working to get reciprocal admission.
He started working as the district's general counsel on June 15, 2017. A licensed attorney for more than three decades in his home state, Harris applied for a reciprocal Oregon license in September. Harris said the reason it took him a few months to get his application materials together is because of the need to track down paper records.
"I could have filed an incomplete form almost immediately," Harris said. "But Oregon had no application timeline, so I opted to file a more complete application, but it took some time to track down the information."
In the course of investigating an unrelated complaint, the licensing agency found Harris didn't have an Oregon license and sent him a letter Nov. 9 saying he may have violated professional standards by working without a license. Harris resigned Nov. 20, saying at the time that he had a new job offer.
According to documentation Harris provided to the Tribune, the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners recommended Nov. 20 and again on April 2 that he be admitted. He says he took the oath June 1. The Bar was not immediately able to confirm the date.
Asked why he pursued a license now that he is no longer working in Oregon, Harris said in an email: "It is a privilege to be a member of any state Bar. I admire their stance on diversity and inclusion."
Interestingly, now that Harris has finally been admitted to the Oregon Bar, there are new ways in which he could be punished if found to have violated the rules.
"If he is admitted to the Bar, then that does open up a new sanctions scheme, basically," Walsh said.
The Oregon Supreme Curt could impose penalties up to suspension or revocation of his Oregon law license. Without one, they would have put a note on his file and sent it to his home licensing states, which might have imposed similar penalties, but are not required to.
Harris said in court papers that he "fully complied" with Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct and asked to be reimbursed for legal costs.