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Esquivel targeted for claims on wolf bill

An environmental group has filed ethics complaints against state Rep. Sal Esquivel and two fellow Republican legislators claiming they knowingly misrepresented a bill that eventually thwarted the groups' effort to overturn Oregon's delisting of gray wolves last fall.

But Esquivel says he was going on what he knew at the time when was stumping for House Bill 4040 during February's legislative session, when he said the bill didn't preclude legal challenges to the delisting decision.

While he may have ended up wrong on his reading of the bill, it was not intentional or malicious "and that's where they're going to lose this," Esquivel says.

Cascadia Wildlands filed state ethics complaints Monday against Esquivel and Reps. Brad Witt and Greg Barreto for violating rules barring lawmakers from making false statements about legislation.

Nick Cady, Cascadia Wildlands' legal director, said the groups have no proof Esquivel or the others were knowingly misstating the bill's impacts while it was in the House, "but to make those assertions without knowing is problematic as well."

Eventually the Oregon Senate passed the bill and Gov. Kate Brown signed it knowing its impact on the wolf's removal from Oregon Endangered Species Act protection.

Ronald Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, said correspondence from Cady reached his desk Monday afternoon but he had not yet reviewed it to determine whether the commission has jurisdiction to investigate the complaint.

If it does, the first 30 days of the investigation will be confidential; then it would become a public process.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in November voted 4-2 to delist gray wolves throughout Oregon based on criteria laid out in the state's wolf-management plan.

Under Oregon law, the commission has the authority to list or delist animals under the Oregon Endangered Species Act and it does not require legislative affirmation or ratification.

During the February session, the House took up HB 4040, touted by Esquivel and others as an affirmation of the commission's decision and that its language did not preclude the filing of lawsuits challenging the commission's decision.

After it passed the House, the Oregon Legislative Counsel Committee's review of the bill concluded that its only effect was to prevent judicial review of the wolf delisting decision, the ethics complaint states.

That bill was later passed by the Oregon Senate and signed March 14 by Gov. Kate Brown. It was cited by the Oregon Court of Appeals in its April 22 dismissal of the groups' lawsuit seeking to overturn the delisting.

The ethics complaint specifically takes issue with a letter signed by Esquivel on behalf of the Oregon Sportsmen's Caucus that states the bill contained no language that would preclude judicial review of the commission's decision.

"People make mistakes on the House floor all the time, but they're not intentional," Esquivel says.

The commission's decision does not change the status of wolves in Western Oregon as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Correction: Oregon Wild did not join Cascadia Wildlands in filing the complaint as was reported in a previous version.