Wu on the hook for refunds; CHD e-mails are public record

by: Archive photo

As Stover E. Harger III reports this week, departed Congressman David Wu didn't leave office with just his name and reputation in tatters. He also left with a considerable chunk of unallocated campaign donations.

Wu has several choices with what to do with the money. He can sit on it, donate it to a legitimate charity, transfer it to another candidate or give it to his political party. The only real legal prohibition would be for him to use it for personal purposes or give it to a friend, relative or colleague for any other reason.

In our opinion, Wu should make the time and effort to return unexpended campaign dollars to his contributors. Excluding his campaign debt, Wu has $301,000 on hand.

It's a burn, to say the least, to pay for a defective product, and Wu's political defect is now without dispute. Return the money to those who had provided it.

Barring such refund, Wu's only other option is to equitably distribute it to humanitarian charities within the First Congressional District.

As near as we can tell from campaign finance filings, only one person from Columbia County contributed to Wu's most recent re-election campaign. It was a woman from Rainier, and she gave him $100. We hope she kept her receipt.

E-mails are public records when the exchanges originate from, or are received by, a public official. That is a concept too many government agencies are slow to embrace. And the real problems arise when the press or citizenry attempt to gain access to those conversations between government officials that zip across the Internet with barely a trace. But there is a trace, thank goodness, just as there is an Oregon law requiring public officials to save e-mail records.

Unfortunately we have too often seen government agencies hinder such access, either through burdensome processes or prohibitive fee policies. Public information requests for e-mail exchanges can quickly draw charges as high as $600 or more for a couple of months' worth of e-mail exchanges. Who can afford such an expense? Typically the cost spikes when the agency exercises its public information policy that too often allows for the involvement of an attorney to ensure no legally sensitive information is inadvertently distributed to the masses. Hence, attorneys hired to protect such agencies get the final word on what information is released to the public.

So it is a rare occasion in which uninhibited access to e-mails occurs. Such is the case, however, with the current Columbia Health District board that was supposed to inherit the complete public record on the defunct hospital project from the former CHD directors. We at the Spotlight have been grateful for such access.

This week, Tyler Graf reports on some of the telling exchanges between the former CHD board and its staff, at times providing context to decisions leading up the transfer of power from the former board to the current board, including e-mails that discuss the demise of the hospital project.

Unfortunately, it seems, there is a glaring gap in the e-mail record. In fact, e-mails between August 2009 and March 2011 are missing. According to the current CHD board, its members have contacted the former CHD public health administration that would have been in charge of maintaining these records, which has claimed it turned the records over to the new board. We have no reason to doubt the account provided by the current CHD board members, though we will continue tracking this development.

Also missing from the original information conveyance was a check register itemization of CHD spending. Mr. Graf was at the courthouse Monday when a supposed electronic check register of past spending was delivered from the prior CHD staff to the new CHD board. Unfortunately, as Mr. Graf observed, the data included in the electronic register was unspecific and provided little insight into the former board and administration's spending practices.

As a voting public we expect full transparency from the ousted CHD administration regarding financial and information records compiled in pursuit of the defunct hospital project, especially as the project unraveled. In fact, we demand it. Remember: The same administration that managed such aspects of the prior CHD board is the same administration that is managing public health for Columbia County today.

It must be above board in all aspects of its past and current operations. Otherwise, it is the Columbia County commissioners' responsibility, as the contract provider for public health, to take appropriate action.

We expect the commissioners to ensure the people responsible for administering public health are acting in good faith in regard to access to records that affect public operations, despite their existence behind the shield of a nonprofit such as the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County.