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Oregon flunks public integrity investigation

If Oregonians needed a reminder that the state's ethics and public disclosure laws badly need an overhaul, they just got one. The Center for Public Integrity has released its latest State Integrity Investigation of all 50 states. Oregon flunked badly.

To be fair, no state did well. The highest grade the center handed out was a C, to Alaska. California and Connecticut scored C-minuses; No other state did better than a D-plus.

Oregon, however, earned an F, largely as a result of the way the state handled the influence-peddling scandal surrounding Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. In particular, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission came in for criticism because, when questions first arose about Hayes' policy role in the administration, the commission was not insulated from pressure by the governor himself.

Describing Oregon as "a state where ethical behavior is assumed rather than regulated," the center's report faulted the Ethics Commission for moving too slowly on the Kitzhaber investigation, and noted the governor appointed its members or submitted names to the Democratic-controlled Legislature.That has since been fixed as a result of the scandal, but, the report notes, "Even after reforms, Oregon’s ethics commission still lacks budget protections, the authority to independently investigate bad behavior, and the staffing and technical support to see its mission through."

Oregon's public records laws, a model for the nation when they were first enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal, are now riddled with exemptions — 480 or thereabouts — and there are no firm time limits for agencies to respond to public records requests, and no independent agency charged with enforcing disclosure. The resulting delays were a major factor in the Kitzhaber affair. The center's report notes more robust disclosure rules might have allowed voters to get a look at Kitzhaber's records before he was re-elected.

Oregon did get higher marks for some things: It's budget process earned a C, and the Secretary of State's audits division got a C-plus. But overall, the state tied for 44th.

Again, to be fair, the center's analysis stressed that Oregon is not riddled with corruption to the extent of some other parts of the country. Even the editor of the conservative blog Oregon Catalyst noted, "It's not like Chicago or something."

But what's more troubling than the state's poor marks in this investigation is the lack of urgency among majority Democrats about fixing what the report calls Oregon's "wobbly legal framework."

Ethics reform, introduced with some fanfare in the 2015 session, now looks like it may languish until 2017 — after Gov. Kate Brown stands for election to the last two years of Kitzhaber's term.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has convened a task force to look at cleaning up the state's public records laws, but that, too, will be slow going.

Meanwhile, Oregon will continue coast along as a place where, in the words of center's study, "good behavior is taking for granted rather than enforced."