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Ethics concerns are labeled dirty politics

A Lake Oswego mayoral candidate has been accused of bringing his law firm's clients into city business two years ago.

But Jack Hoffman, who is charged by opponents with voting to award a city contract to a client, counters he's being 'Swift-Boated.'

Hoffman's opponents contend he violated ethics rules by voting for a $167,000 contract that gave planning work for Lake Oswego's community center idea to BOORA Architects March 6, 2006.

BOORA Architects is a client of the Dunn Carney law firm, in which Hoffman is a partner.

Accusations about Hoff-man's vote mostly come from supporters of his opponent in the mayoral race, John Surrett. The Review received tips and letters last week.

They also accuse Hoffman of representing Safeco Insurance at the same time he and other members of the Lake Oswego City Council voted to purchase Safeco's building at 4101 Kruse Way for a community center.

That accusation appears to be false. Dunn Carney represents clients insured by Safeco Insurance, not the company itself, Hoffman said.

But the claim that Hoffman voted on the BOORA Architects contract after Dunn Carney performed work for the firm is true, Hoffman confirmed.

BOORA Architects has nearly doubled its earnings from the city of Lake Oswego since receiving the initial contract for $167,000. Three subsequent amendments to the contract boosted BOORA Architects' earnings by $146,000, for a total of $313,709.

Hoffman did not vote on any of the contract amendments. He was absent from a meeting July 5, 2006, at which councilors voted to add BOORA Architects planning and public outreach work worth $94,612 to the contract.

He was not a member of the Lake Oswego City Council April 3, 2007, when a third contract amendment added work on programs and design for $51,797.

Hoffman denies improper conduct in his initial vote for the contract. Instead, he chalks the charges up to dirty politics.

Surrett, however, said voters should be able to fully examine Hoffman's record. He said questions about conflicts of interest are legitmate.

'You're going to have a problem with this man if he has to serve two masters,' said Surrett. 'It's a genuine concern of the electorate and the voters of Lake Oswego because how are we going to know, if he is elected mayor, whose side he really represents?'

Hoffman points to a system previously used to help him avoid conflicts between his legal practice and city business to prove his transparency.

'When I was a city councilor anything that was on the agenda (Robyn Christie, city recorder), would send to the records manager (at Dunn Carney) and the records manager would do a conflicts check,' Hoffman said.

The agendas were checked against a database of prior clients and contacts at Dunn Carney. Hoffman said the database includes thousands - and potentially tens of thousands - of clients and contacts.

The Dunn Carney law firm includes approximately 50 lawyers, 25 of whom are partners.

Since accusations about his vote for the contract surfaced, Hoffman said he learned that another partner in the law firm represented BOORA Architects in 2005 and again in 2007.

Hoffman said he was not aware that BOORA Architects was ever a client of Dunn Carney at the time he voted on the contract.

'I did not do anything wrong,' said Hoffman. 'I had this system in place and every week I would get these reports saying we checked and there are no conflicts.'

Christie confirmed that a Dunn Carney records manager regularly received the Lake Oswego city agenda. She said it was up to the records manager to flag conflicts for Hoffman.

Hoffman said no conflicts were reported when the BOORA Architects contract appeared on the city council agenda, leading him to believe that no work was being done for the company at that time.

In the past, Hoffman has recused himself from other city council decisions that conflict with his legal practice. Those decisions include issues involving Avamere Health Services, Gerding Edlin Development Company and Bones Construction Company, all clients of other Dunn Carney partners.

State ethics officials say it is uncertain whether Hoffman should have disclosed the relationship between BOORA Architects and the Dunn Carney law firm before voting on the contract.

'It doesn't sound like it's an actual conflict of interest because an actual conflict of interest means that the councilor would financially benefit from approving that contract,' said Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

'But you are required to disclose if you think there could be a financial benefit to yourself, a relative or a business that you're associated with,' he said.

'If this councilor believes that approving this contract was going to benefit the firm that he's associated with, then there's a requirement to disclose the potential conflict of interest. But I don't know all the facts of whether this councilor was faced with this or not,' said Bersin.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission handles approximately 130 complaints annually, Bersin said. As much as 30 percent stem from conflict of interest claims.

Bersin said few public servants institute safeguards such as Hoffman's.

'It sounds like this councilor has tried to put some kind of process in place to guard himself from any of these potential conflicts of interest by having somebody review the agenda,' said Bersin. 'In many cases local government officials don't watch it that closely.'

Bersin said the Oregon Government Ethics Commission has not received any complaints about Hoffman.