Oregon Senate panel rejects ethics complaint filed against Portland lawmaker

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In a vote that split the two parties, the Oregon Senate Conduct Committee dismissed a complaint filed against a Portland Democrat who accused her of failing to declare a conflict of interest.

The complaint was deposed by two Republican voters from Senator Akasha Lawrence Spence. They said she broke Senate rules because, according to the complaint, the company she owns could potentially benefit from Senate Bill 1579which creates a grant program for organizations that provide “culturally appropriate services that support economic stability, self-sufficiency, wealth creation, and economic equity among disadvantaged individuals, families, businesses, and communities” .

Under Senate rules, lawmakers must publicly declare before voting when the legislation in question could potentially affect them. Such statements are relatively common and do not prevent the senator from voting on the measure.

In this case, the complaint alleged that Lawrence Spence’s company, Fifth Element LLC, may be eligible to receive money from the grant fund. The company helps small businesses find and purchase real estate that suits their business needs.

Lawrence Spence said his business does not specifically serve “disadvantaged” customers, as required by the bill.

“When I cast my vote, I had no intention of causing Fifth Element, LLC to apply for the fund created by Senate Bill 1579,” Lawrence Spence told the conduct committee. “Actually, I didn’t understand that Fifth Element was eligible for the fund.”

Lawrence Spence also said she understands the grant fund created by the bill is only available to nonprofits. The bill uses the word “organization” but does not define it.

“It never occurred to me that I had a conflict of interest, and so I never thought of filing one,” she said.

His arguments swayed Senator Fred GirodR-Lyon.

“You have to watch (if) she was trying to hide something from the public, and I think the answer is absolutely no,” he said, noting that Lawrence Spence had listed his ownership of the business in his Submission of declaration of economic interest with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

But the chairman of the committee Senator Floyd ProzanskiD-Eugene, said it was irrelevant whether Lawrence Spence was deliberately trying to avoid scrutiny.

“No matter what your knowledge or intent, you have a duty to make that statement before you vote if there is a potential or direct conflict,” he said.

Prozanski pointed out an opinion written by legislative prosecutors which concluded that Lawrence Spence “was likely required to declare a potential conflict of interest before voting”. The legal opinion also noted that it was ultimately up to the Senate itself to decide whether its members had violated its rules.

Prozansky and Senator Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, both voted to find Lawrence Spence violated Senate rules. Girod and Senator Kathleen TaylorD-Portland, voted against the motion.

Taylor hesitated before voting and asked Prozanski if she could wait until everyone else on the committee had voted before making her decision. Prozanski denied his request.

Because the motion required three votes to pass, the case fell through and the complaint is now considered dead. Had the committee voted in favor of the complaint, the recommendations could have included a formal reprimand or even expulsion, although the latter outcome is extremely unlikely.

Before the vote, Girod said the Senate’s conflict of interest guidelines needed an overhaul.

“I think our ethics rules are crystal clear,” he said. “Honestly to God, what constitutes potential conflict and what does not is extremely murky.”

Lawrence Spence was appointed to the Senate last November to serve the remainder of a term to which former Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, was elected. Burdick resigned early when she was appointed to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Lawrence Spence also briefly served in the Oregon House in 2020, similarly serving the unexpired term of a lawmaker who resigned. She had mounted a campaign for Portland City Council but dropped out in January.

Senate Bill 1579 passed the Senate 17-9 in February, with Lawrence Spence joining 16 other Democrats in supporting the measure. The bill then passed the House and was signed into law.

Chris Lehman clehman@oregonian.com @capitolcurrents

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