Public shrugs off latest local political scandals as just way it is
- Jim Redden
- Portland Tribune - News
Whistleblowers often bear brunt as they point to misdeeds
In recent years, Portlanders have watched accusations of financial mismanagement pile up against public officials with no immediate consequences.
Three years ago the Portland Tribune reported on allegations of bribery, fraud and financial mismanagement in the city's parking program - allegations that have only now become the apparent focus of a federal criminal investigation.
Six months ago, a city audit accused Water Commissioner Randy Leonard of misspending rate funds. And just last week, Portland State University accused former provost Mike Burton of lying to obtain $4,500 in travel expenses. University officials decided not to file a police report, however, and Burton calls the charges the result of a misunderstanding.
'There's just no accountability,' says Kent Craford, director of the Portland Water Users Coalition, a group of large water consumers fighting projected rate increases. 'What's sad is, I talk to a lot of people and they say, 'That's just the way it is. There's nothing you can do about it.' '
Shortly after the audit criticizing Leonard was released, Craford and a number of other water activists held a press conference to request Mayor Sam Adams take the Water Bureau from Leonard and assign it to another commissioner. Adams rejected the request within hours, saying the council had supported the projects criticized in the report, including spending approximately $1.5 million in water funds on a new headquarters for the Portland Rose Festival Association.
'That's what always happens. The public officials circle the wagons and defend each other,' says Craford.
The parking problems may be under investigation now only because City Ombudsman Michael Mills gave up pursuing them through the usual channels. Mills began hearing accusations years ago that Portland Parking Manager Ellis McCoy was taking bribes to steer city contracts to a single vendor. After investigating the complaints, Mills reported his findings to Sue Keil, who was then director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. When nothing happened, he referred them to the FBI in mid-2008.
Mills has been advised by the city attorney's office not to discuss specific allegations or to say whether he believes the FBI is investigating McCoy now because of his referral. But Mills is clear about what he wants other city employees to learn from the investigation.
'I hope that city employees gain an awareness of ethical issues and are encouraged to report wrongdoing when they see it,' says Mills.
Whistleblowers face trouble
It is unclear what the FBI is investigating in the McCoy case. The Portland Tribune previously reported that McCoy was accused of receiving gifts from George Levey, founder of Cale Parking Systems USA, a Florida company that has been paid millions by the city to provide solar-powered parking meters.
Other transportation employees allege more misconduct within the bureau, however. Maintenance workers Dana Whitley and Bill Clark say they have witnessed timecard falsification, theft of city property and safety infractions at job sites.
The charges are contained in two tort claim notices filed against the city by their attorney, Jason Kafoury. According to the notices, bureau managers identified Whitley and Clark to other employees, subjecting them to years of harassment.
Whitley and Clark are not the only city whistleblowers complaining about retaliation. So is Lisa Vasquez, the former director of the Public Safety System Revitalization Project. She helped select the replacement 9-1-1 dispatch system that has been criticized by some users for operational problems. Operational problems surfaced after the system was activated in April of this year.
The revitalization project is supervised by Leonard. He fired Vasquez in June, just days after Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner publicly identified her as the person raising questions about the contractor selected to install the system. Vasquez's lawyer says she plans to file a whistleblower lawsuit against the city.
Allegations against Burton were also uncovered through an audit by the Oregon University System of a PSU program overseen by Burton, the School of Extended Studies. The audit revealed that Burton billed PSU for $4,500 in unjustified travel expenses, according to an Aug. 18 letter from Patricia Snoplowski, executive director of the internal audit division, to PSU President Wim Wiewel.
According to the letter, Burton originally requested reimbursement for traveling to London and Paris for conferences he did not attend. When he could not prove he attended the conferences, auditors met with Burton on June 14 and said he would be placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation was conducted. Burton announced his retirement from PSU the next day, effective June 30.
After consulting with the Multnomah County district attorney's office, PSU officials decided against pursuing criminal charges against Burton, who says he changed his travel plans at the last minute, forcing him to miss the conferences. Burton says he still looked into European teaching methods on the trip, and had agreed to reimburse PSU for those days he was not working.
Craford says PSU's handling of the matter is another example of the special treatment public officials receive when they get into trouble.
'There's a double standard, no doubt about it,' says Craford.