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No sympathy for coddled pols

Suing a lobbyist for defamation is either brazen or very naive

We're having trouble working up much sympathy for Oregon legislators trying to portray themselves as victims in the Hawaii-gate episode that erupted over their industry-paid vacation trips.

State Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, has gone so far as to say he'll sue the lobbyist responsible for defamation after it was revealed that he failed to report that beer and wine distributors spent more than $2,500 on him for a trip to the island of Maui in 2002.

Seven legislators &

8212; one since retired &

8212; have belatedly acknowledged that they received free airfare, hotels, meals and golf in 2002 or 2004 from the beer and wine distributors for the Hawaii trips. The 2004 event was at the Grand Wailea Resort, where the cheapest rooms listed a week ago were $347 a night.

One of the seven, House Majority Leader Wayne Scott, said he assumed the donation was under the required reporting limit. The limit is currently $150. Let's see, you flew to Hawaii, stayed several nights in a swanky hotel and lived large &

8212; and you didn't think it was over the allowable limit?

That's matched by Atkinson's assertion that he will sue the lobbyist for damaging his reputation. That suggests Atkinson is either very brazen or very naive. What did he and the other legislators think was going on when they accepted the trip? That the beer and wine distributors were just nice guys who wanted to recognize them for their public service? Come on, don't insult our intelligence.

Oregon has one of the lowest beer and wine taxes in the nation. Is it a coincidence that in 2003, the Legislature defeated an effort to raise the beer tax by 7 cents a bottle and the wine tax by 15 cents a bottle? Guess who the leading opponent of the proposal was? Beer and wine lobbyist Paul Romain, the same fellow who put together the Hawaii trip for the legislators.

There is no doubt that the beer and wine folks were trying to curry favor with the legislators. And there's no doubt that the legislators should be punished for failing to report their free vacations. State law allows a maximum civil penalty of $1,000, and if there's any hope of suggesting that this state cares about political ethics, the offending legislators should be fined.

The entire Legislature no doubt has taken note of the fiasco (a number of amended reports have poured into the state this week from politicians). But it's not enough to take note; it must take action.

First, the Legislature needs to adequately fund that state's ethics commission, whose staff now comfortably fits in a broom closet. This is an issue for the legislative leadership (of which Scott is a member), which has been reluctant to fund an agency that may cause legislators discomfort. Get over it or the voters will cause even greater discomfort.

Second, fix Oregon's laws. Why should it even be legal for a deep-pocket group to pay for a legislator's vacation in Hawaii? It stinks to high heaven and it should be stopped.