Audit: Oregon Health Authority misspent millions of dollars

In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, Dennis Richardson, the Oregon Republican Secretary of state candidate, waves to the crowd during an election night event at the Salem Convention Center.

Timothy J. Gonzalez

Sometimes, it just seems as if Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson can't help himself: Richardson, the only Republican elected to statewide office in two decades, is determined to keep voters apprised of everything he's up to, and so a steady stream of news releases and newsletters flows from his office. There's nothing wrong with that: Every elected officeholder does the same. 

But it seems to us that Richardson would have been better off holding his tongue in a newsletter he issued last week in the wake of a scathing audit of the Oregon Health Authority.

Richardson oversees these state audits, and he often issues press releases about their findings. Previous secretaries of state have done the same.

The overall findings of the audit into the Health Authority couldn't have been much of a surprise for anyone who's been following the troubled agency: The audit concluded that the Health Authority misspent millions of dollars by providing Medicaid benefits to people who were ineligible. The audit also noted that the agency's previous top officials had hampered attempts by auditors to access information. (The Health Authority now is under the leadership of a new director, Patrick Allen, and Richardson has been generous in his praise of Allen.)

So far, so good. But then Richardson pushed it too far: In his official newsletter, he summarized the results of the audit and then added a reference to the January election in which Oregon voters will decide whether to approve Measure 101, a pair of health care taxes.

Here's what Richardson wrote in the newsletter: 

"In closing, today’s OHA (Oregon Health Authority) Audit Report provides the best information the audit team could obtain from OHA’s previous uncooperative leadership and administration. The amount of wasteful and incompetent spending at OHA has been staggering and has gone on for at least the past four years. Soon Oregon voters will be considering whether or not to approve tax increases intended to provide additional funding to the OHA. With such abysmal examples of OHA misfeasance and obfuscation, OHA faces tough questions about its credibility and its ability to appropriately spend the money it is provided."

A couple of notes are worth making here: First, of course, Richardson has a legitimate point. And that's certain to be a focal point of the campaign against the health care taxes.

But here's the second note: In including that reference to the January election, Richardson opened himself to charges of improper electioneering. 

State law does allow elected officials to engage in political advocacy while on the job. But a state election law manual (produced — you guessed it — by the secretary of state's office) says that such political advocacy "may not be published" in a newsletter produced or distributed by public employees. The law also blocks elected officials from using public resources to promote or oppose candidates or ballot measures.

Richardson's newsletter prompted an official complaint from Jeanne Atkins, head of the state Democratic Party and the previous secretary of state. Since these complaints are investigated by election officials in (you guessed it) the secretary of state's office, Atkins asked that state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum take the lead in this case. Richardson agreed to that request.

Richardson also called the complaint "meritless." Now, there's no doubt that the complaint is politically motivated, but it's going to be hard to make the case that the language in the newsletter isn't meant to persuade voters to oppose the health care taxes. And it's worth noting that a variety of mid-valley public officials have been nailed for electioneering violations based on much more neutral language than Richardson used.

The secretary of state can drag this fight out, but it's a losing battle. He should apologize and pay whatever fine is assessed. And he should remember this: Sometimes it's best to keep your mouth shut. (mm)

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