'Inappropriate comment' forces out business lobby president
SALEM — Mark Johnson, chief executive officer of a leading business lobbying group, has been asked to step down after allegations that he made an inappropriate comment about a former colleague in the Legislature.
Johnson is a former state representative from Hood River. He was chosen to lead Oregon Business and Industry in October.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Johnson said he was "shocked" and "deeply disappointed by the executive committee's decision," he decided to resign because "I respect the organization and the importance of its role as the voice of businesses across the state."
"In my years of public service, including seven years serving my district in the Oregon House of Representatives, I championed efforts to provide undocumented Oregonians access to driver's cards and to obtain affordable access to college tuition," Johnson said in the statement. "I'm proud of the work that I have done to promote equity and improve outcomes for students across our state. So, it is shocking (to) be accused of insensitivity on equity issues I have demonstrated I care about."
The organization, officially launched last July, is the result of a merger between two lobbying groups: Associated Oregon Industries and the Oregon Business Association. The merger was announced in November 2016.
A former employee of OBI, Joel Fischer, told The Oregonian that Johnson had referred to state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, "and his chain-migration homeboys from the hood." Two others present corroborated the statement to the newspaper, which broke the news Wednesday morning.
Wednesday afternoon, Johnson apologized to Hernandez for the comments. "I apologize to Rep. Diego Hernandez for any insensitive comments I may have made," Johnson said in his statement. "I respect his service, as I respect the work of all of Oregon's legislators."
Hernandez issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying, "It's disheartening to hear such comments from a former colleague. But I know that this isn't reflective of the larger business community and I look forward to working with OBI on our state issues."
Scott Parrish, chairman of the Oregon Business and Industry Board, said in a statement Wednesday that the comment, "regardless of any joking intent, is unacceptable and wholly inconsistent with OBI's values and the values of its members."
The board learned of Johnson's comments at its meeting Tuesday evening and reached a "unanimous decision" to ask Johnson to step down, Parrish said. The decision also follows the organization's hiring of an outside investigator to look into allegations of inappropriate conduct by Johnson.
"When vague allegations were raised about OBI President Mark Johnson by a former employee, the executive committee retained an experienced outside investigator to thoroughly review and evaluate them," Parrish said. "The details of the investigator's report are privileged, but the investigator did not find any pattern of misconduct."
Johnson represented Hood River, Clackamas and Multnomah counties in the House from 2011 to November 2017.
Ginny Lang, a former CenturyLink executive and longtime member of the board of Associated Oregon Industries, will serve as interim president while the organization searches for a new CEO.