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County ethics audit: Some won't speak up

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Many employees fear retaliation despite clear provisions intended to protect those who compain.

Multnomah County has a strong culture of ethics overall, but some employees are afraid to report unethical behavior due to fear of retaliation, auditors say.

A survey conducted by county Auditor Steve March found that more than 90 percent of county employees agree the county's expectations for ethical behavior are clear.

But his report of the survey highlighted that only 60 percent of county employees would feel comfortable reporting ethically questionable behavior, in part due to fear of retaliation. The report includes selected anonymous comments.

"What is said and expected is not what happens," wrote one employee who responded to the survey. "Those who do speak up are retaliated against. People work in constant fear, and favoritism is excessive."

The survey received responses from more than 2,400 county employees, about 40 percent of the total workforce.

March said his auditors' findings show that elected officials at the county — of which he is one — can do a better job of setting a tone for county employees.

And his office and the rest of the county can do a better job of publicizing the county's Good Government Hotline, he said.

That number, and the auditor's website, lets employees and members of the public anonymously file reports of ethical transgressions and waste.

"We will follow up on anonymous reports," March said. "There is even a feature on the hotline so that (anonymous) people can check back in."

The report will be presented at Thursday's meeting of the county Board of Commissioners.

Two elected officials whose predecessors faced ethics controversies issued formal responses that are included with the audit.

Starting in 2013, Chair Deborah Kafoury served out the term of Jeff Cogen, who resigned following controversy over his affair with and alleged favoritism toward a county employee.

Kafoury agreed with the audit's recommendations to form a work group to explore improvements in ethics training and whistleblower retaliation.

"Unfortunately, Multnomah County elected officials have engaged in unethical behavior in the past, and that has eroded trust and respect from employees and the public, which the survey showed can have a lasting impact," Kafoury wrote. "We must work hard to ensure those instances are not repeated."

Sheriff Mike Reese ascended to his job last year following the resignation of Sheriff Dan Staton, who was accused by his managers of threatening them with firing and worse for disloyalty.

In his response to the audit, Reese said he was concerned to see that Multnomah County Sheriff's Office employees scored lower than other departments in their response to questions.

"Ethics is a foundational pillar of my efforts to reorient MCSO toward success," he wrote.

Issues with Cogen and Staton are just the more high-profile ethics questions that have hit Multnomah officials. Others include:

• Former Sheriff Bernie Giusto resigned in 2008 after being accused of ethical misconduct and untruthfulness.

• In 2015, Willamette Week reported that staff to former Commissioner Diane McKeel in 2015 pressured county staff on behalf of her husband, a fire district official, in the siting of a new fire station.

• Early this year, two former staffers to Commissioner Loretta Smith were quoted in Willamette Week accusing her of misusing public funds for political purposes, which Smith denied.

Some county staff, in their comments to the survey, felt concerns about ethics were overblown.

"Surveys such as this give the impression that there may be serious problems among county staff regarding ethics. In reality, it's likely only a small number of staff people are violating ethics and they should be managed by their direct supervisors," one commenter wrote.

Others reported concerns about cronyism.

"Cronyism at the executive level creates an unethical environment where staff cannot raise concerns about certain people or

management," another commenter wrote.

One employee said the county Human Resources department is too pro-management to investigate ethics complaints.

"It makes it difficult to report issues when you know that the investigation is not being done by an external, neutral, investigator," the commenter wrote.