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Buckley calls ethics complaint 'political attack'

Ashland Rep. Peter Buckley says an ethics complaint filed against him as co-chairman of the House Ways and Means Commission is an unfounded political attack.

"I think it is a partisan distraction," said Buckley, who was named in the complaint along with co-chairman and fellow Democrat Dave Hunt. "This is part of the way they want to play the game."

Oregon Republican Party officials allege Buckley and Hunt traded public money for legislative votes in order to pass a tax increase.

"They are using taxpayers dollars to secure votes on behalf of their agenda," said Andrew Over, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party. "We feel that has no place in politics."

Over couldn't say whether Republicans ever engaged in any type of quid pro quo to secure votes. "I don't know that," he said.

Ronald Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Ethics Commission, said his office is reviewing the allegation, expecting to make a decision sometime next week.

The allegation claims that on June 9, 2009, Buckley and Hunt, D-Gladstone, sent Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, a letter soliciting his votes for tax bills in exchange for support of public works projects in his district.

Bersin said he was not certain the portion of the ethics statute — ORS 244.010 — cited in the Republican complaint has any specific relevance to the allegation.

"It's an unusual complaint that has come in, and we're looking at that," he said.

Over didn't deny the possibility that the legislative process requires give and take, and sometimes concessions.

However, he said that actually putting the solicitation of a vote in writing points to the seriousness of the problem.

Buckley said he wouldn't necessarily characterize the letter as a quid pro quo, saying instead it was an effort to provide information requested by Smith.

According to The Associated Press, the letter from Hunt and Buckley promises Smith that about $18 million in bonds would be used for projects in his district and that the House would pass a bill to help the logging industry.

"He said he would be more comfortable if he knew what was in the budget," said Buckley.

Armed with the letter, Smith would be better able to explain to his constituents why he voted for the tax increases, said Buckley.

"We were trying to give him political cover," said Buckley.

This isn't the first time Republicans have cited ethical concerns with the Democratic leadership, said Buckley. In February, he said the Republican Party alleged a conflict of interest with Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, but the complaint was dismissed.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Central Point Republican, said the kind of give and take between Hunt and Buckley in the letter to Smith happens all the time.

"Whether it should happen is another question," he said.

He said the party out of power usually takes on a watchdog roll, which he said appears to be the case in this situation.

Richardson said the allegations against Hunt and Buckley fall into a gray area, though he acknowledged he is not familiar with all the details of the ethics allegations in this case.

"Part of politics is making mutually beneficial arrangements to make sure you have sufficient votes," he said. "It's not uncommon to support bills that you are not particularly interested in. But the person you respect needs the vote."

But Richardson said he has opposed transportation bills that would bring major projects to his district because they also would require substantial taxes for his constituents.

In the case of Buckley and Hunt, Richardson said, he didn't see any evidence that there was the potential of personal gain being derived from the letter.

"It's not like anybody is taking bribes," he said. "It is not crossing the line for personal gain."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.