Oregon county official accuses local newspaper of criminal conduct
An Oregon county official accused a local newspaper of criminal harassment and requested a formal investigation into what the newspaper defended as normal reporting practices.
The Malheur Enterprise reported that it had spent months investigating State Rep. Greg Smith and his work as the contract director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department.
Enterprise Editor and Publisher Les Zaitz told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that Smith and his agency have been uncooperative with the newspaper’s attempts to report on its activities and projects for well over a year.
Following the publication of an article on the department, a county attorney made a formal request to the local sheriff’s office to investigate the Enterprise reporters. In a statement published on Aug. 14, 2019, Smith wrote that he and his staff had been “subjected to endless phone calls, hostile emails at all hours of the day and unwelcome visits,” and accused the Enterprise of pursuing a “vendetta” against him and his office.
Sheriff Brian Wolfe confirmed to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that a county official had asked him to investigate Smith’s allegations
Wolfe told an Enterprise reporter that the newspaper should examine the state crime of “telephonic harassment,” according to the outlet.
According to state law, “a telephone caller commits the crime of telephonic harassment if the caller intentionally harasses or annoys another person” by repeatedly calling or leaving messages at a number they have been forbidden to use. Telephonic harassment is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a maximum $2,500 fine.
In a statement published by the Enterprise, Zaitz defended the staff’s reporting activities as professional and customary. Zaitz also said the newspaper’s staff was alarmed by the prospect of a criminal investigation or search warrant on the Enterprise’s offices.
“We are a small, independently owned news source trying to hold public officials accountable,” Zaitz said. “Rather than provide information and truth, local officials appear more interested in criminalizing a profession protected by the First Amendment.”
The Enterprise reported that Smith’s staff had been instructed to turn over email correspondence with the newspaper to the sheriff’s office.
Sheriff Wolfe confirmed to the Tracker that his office did not open a formal investigation.
“We looked into the allegations and we did not open an investigation because there were no elements of a crime,” Wolfe said.
Smith did not respond to request for comment.
This article and update have been edited to reflect comment from Malheur Editor and Publisher Les Zaitz.
On Dec. 14, 2019, Malheur County Economic Development Director Greg Smith repeated his claim that local newspaper the Malheur Enterprise committed a crime in the course of covering his department.
Editor and publisher Les Zaitz wrote an editorial that the newspaper had sent emails to Smith pressing for the release of overdue public records. In an emailed response, Smith wrote, “This is telephonic harassment. Please stop contacting me.”
In response, the Enterprise asked Smith how he concluded that the emails amounted to harassment and whether he had requested a formal investigation of his claim, as he did in August. The newspaper said that Smith did not respond.
Zaitz wrote that he was sharing the allegation in part to be transparent and to refute Smith’s allegations.
“When a government official accuses anyone of criminal behavior, that is chilling,” Zaitz wrote. “Government officials have enormous power. Their claims have to be taken seriously.”
Zaitz added that they will not let it disrupt their tough reporting on Smith or his department.
“Readers can be assured that we will remain on duty as your watchdog, wary but not silenced,” Zaitz wrote.
Malheur Sheriff Brian Wolfe told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that his office had received an “informal complaint,” but as with Smith’s allegations in August, no investigation was opened.
Smith did not respond to request for comment.
Zaitz told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that in early February 2020 the local district attorney issued an order compelling the agency to release records that the Enterprise had requested through a public records request.
Zaitz also said that the Enterprise launched a “Dollars for Disclosures” campaign to help pay the fees associated with filing such requests.
“We’ve raised over $4,000 from people who want to help us get the records from this agency,” Zaitz said. “I think that speaks volumes about what the citizens think about this agency’s willingness to provide information.”