Richardson accused of conflict of interest in provider tax repeal
PORTLAND – The Oregon Nurses Association has accused Secretary of State Dennis Richardson of having a conflict of interest in a proposed ballot measure to repeal a health care tax plan.
The association has asked to Richardson, who oversees all statewide elections, to disclose any and all political and financial ties he has with Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn. Parrish is spearheading the repeal initiative and is a political consultant paid by the Richardson campaign. The association also demanded that Richardson recuse himself from any business involving the proposed repeal.
"It is unusual and possibly unprecedented for a sitting secretary of state and a state legislator who is also a political consultant and chief petitioner of a referendum, which the secretary will oversee, to have significant financial ties," the association stated in a July 24 letter to Richardson. "This combination of personal, political and financial connections poses a potential conflict of interest that the Secretary of State's Office must immediately address."
Richardson said the association's "allegation of conflicts of interest are specious and unfounded."
"I am committed to fairness to all and favoritism to none in the conduct of Oregon elections," Richardson said in a statement Monday, July 24. He added that his staff in the elections divisions "are fair and unbiased."
Richardson reported payments to Parrish's political consulting firm of nearly $330,000 during his campaign for Secretary of State. His campaign continues to pay Parrish a $1,000 monthly retainer for political consulting services, ONA noted. Parrish's firm also donated more than $20,000 to Richardson's campaign.
Parrish claimed the association's accusations of a conflict of interest are politically motivated. She noted that Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, who sits on the legislative committee that sponsored the health care tax plan, is an employee of ONA. The ONA "spent thousands of dollars to seat" Nosse and ONA political action committee board member Rep. Sheri Malstrom, D-Beaverton.
"It's unfortunate to see the Oregon Nurses Association bring politics to a new low," Parrish said in a statement Monday.
The Oregon Legislature enacted the $550 million health care tax plan as a way to offset a $1.4 billion shortfall in the state's two-year budget. Lawmakers from both parties supported the tax scheme, saying it would allow thousands of low-income residents to remain in the state Medicaid program.
The plan hikes taxes on hospitals and levies a new tax on health insurance plans. Gov. Kate Brown signed the legislation into law July 3.
Parrish said ONA benefits from the legislation because there is an exemption from the insurance tax for unions that self-insure.
Rachel Prusak, a Portland nurse practitioner and member of ONA, said the association wants all of the correspondence and other documents showing a relationship between Richardson and Parrish to be available for public viewing. She said the letter sent Monday was not a formal public records request, but such a request could be a secondary measure if Richardson doesn't publicize the records on his own accord.
"We shouldn't have to do a public records request for the secretary of state to be transparent," Prusak said.