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County officials trade barbs

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal is swinging back at an ethics complaint filed against him by the county, saying county Administrator Danny Jordan was "insubordinate' and "hostile" in meeting with him to discuss the issues later raised in the complaint.

Breidenthal's comments, however, come as new questions have surfaced about his activities as commissioner, including travel expenses of more than $73,000 over the past three years and an increasing number of absences from county meetings. 

His fellow county commissioners today will consider removing Breidenthal as chairman of the Board of Commissioners while the ethics probe is underway. The other two commissioners continue to support a full inquiry into Breidenthal’s travel expenses, which they have previously questioned.

The Oregon Ethics Commission is looking at possible undue influence from contributions received by Breidenthal, which were detailed in a 37-page complaint filed by Jackson County on Oct. 22. Breidenthal said the threat of the complaint prompted him to go to Sheriff Corey Falls about his concerns over Jordan's actions. Falls later requested an Oregon Department of Justice inquiry into the case "involving a County Commissioner."

Breidenthal said he felt the ethics complaint was in part retaliation by Jordan following a previous disagreement.

“I felt this was an intent to influence a political official,” Breidenthal said.

He met with Jordan, County Counsel Joel Benton and County Auditor Erik Spivak on Oct. 19 to discuss his campaign for a leadership role with the Western Interstate Region, an affiliate of the National Association of Counties that focuses primarily on public lands policy.

Breidenthal said Jordan was “hostile” and “insubordinate” during the meeting.

However, in separate written statements, Benton and Spivak said it was Breidenthal who became agitated.

Benton stated, "I did not interpret Jordan's tone or words to be made in an 'insubordinate manner.' Insubordinate is the failure to follow a direct and lawful order from one's superior."

Breidenthal, in a transcript that he wrote about the meeting, said Jordan was retaliating against him over a disagreement about employees bringing children to work. In a phone interview, Breidenthal also said Jordan has interfered with his attempts to discuss issues directly with department heads.

Jordan said Monday he wouldn’t go into detail about the inquiries or Breidenthal’s comments. “I would prefer to let the Ethics Commission do its work, and the Department of Justice do its work,” he said.

Breidenthal said he went to Sheriff Corey Falls immediately after the meeting and Falls later requested a Department of Justice inquiry into the issues.

A confidential email obtained from the county through a public records request by the Mail Tribune describes the brief request Falls made to David Kirby at the Department of Justice. It stated: “I would like to have the Oregon Department of Justice look into allegations regarding a County Commissioner in Jackson County. If you need further information to move forward, please contact me.”

The county’s complaint centers on Breidenthal’s travel expenses, which were paid mostly by Jackson County over the past three years. At the same time, the AOC created a separate “Friends of Doug Breidenthal” account that was designed to help him campaign for a little-known office of the Western Interstate Region. After receiving reimbursments from the AOC and other organizations, the county paid $44,000 of the $73,000 in travel-related expenses, which Breidenthal used to attend various meetings related to his work as a county commissioner.

Over the past year, Commissioner Colleen Roberts has had $3,300 in travel expenses, and Commissioner Rick Dyer has had $5,300, according to figures released from the county Auditor’s Department.

In former Commissioner Don Skundrick’s last two years in office, he had $3,500 in travel expenses while former Commissioner John Rachor had $9,500.

The county complaint said Breidenthal’s separate AOC account had accumulated $10,500 in contributions, ranging from $500 to $2,000, from about a dozen groups, including energy companies and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and the Coquille Indian Tribe, which are at odds over a proposed Medford casino.

Laura Cleland, a spokeswoman for the AOC, confirmed on Monday that the Friends of Doug Breidenthal account was managed by the AOC, but said she only recently became aware that Breidenthal had a debit card for the account.

“We didn’t maintain control well enough,” she said. “That’s on us.”

Cleland said the AOC has receipts for many of the expenses. “It’s the debit card that we don’t have back-up for,” she said.

The AOC has had other commissioners who have had larger accounts, including one who ran for a national office about 10 years ago and amassed more than $100,000 in contributions, Cleland said.

County Auditor Spivak said in the complaint that if the Ethics Commission determines state ethics laws have been violated, it could call into question decisions made by the Board of Commissioners because of the contributions Breidenthal received, which weren’t disclosed to the county. The county requires any gifts or contributions made to a county commissioner in excess of $50 be reported to avoid any question of undue influence.

Dyer and Roberts said they only recently become aware of the separate account, which took in $10,500 in 2014.

Dyer challenged assertions made by Breidenthal on a Monday talk radio show about a $1,000 contribution to Dyer’s commissioner campaign made from the side account used by Breidenthal.

“I’m not happy at all,” Dyer said. “Doug asserted that he talked to our campaign and made full disclosure of the funds, and that’s simply not true.”

Dyer said he checked with his campaign staff and none of them recalled having spoken to Breidenthal about the donation.

The contribution was made through Dyer’s campaign website. Dyer said Breidenthal checked the box that stated the money was coming from him personally, and did not indicate it came from the Friends of Doug Breidenthal account set up under the AOC.

Dyer said Monday that Breidenthal's comment on the radio program about the contribution "really infuriates me." He also stood by his earlier statements that the issue warranted a full review by the Ethics Commission.

“It needs to be vetted,” he said. “It needs to be investigated.”

Breidenthal, who has hired a Portland law firm to represent him, told the Board of Commissioners that he would campaign for the WIR position on April 3, 2014, about a month after the account was established. At the time, he said he had nine of the 15 votes needed and that most of the campaigning would involve phone calls, according to an audio file of the meeting.

Instead, most of the $10,000 for the campaign was spent on traveling to various conferences throughout 2014. The expenditures included paying for his wife, Melanie, to accompany him on an Alaska trip during an event for WIR officials for which Breidenthal spent $2,440. Breidenthal said he also paid for an AOC employee's trip to Alaska because the employee was working on his campaign.

Breidenthal, who said Jordan encouraged him to seek the WIR office, said the expenses from the special account were all used as part of his bid for higher offices in the WIR and with the AOC.

“I never received any personal benefit from anything,” Breidenthal said.

He said he spent most of the money because, when he runs for something, he’s "in it to win."

Breidenthal's extensive travel to conferences and other events resulted in him missing 30 commissioner meetings so far in 2015, according to county records. He missed 23 meetings in 2014 and 15 in 2013. Breidenthal was heading to Colorado this week for a three-day conference sponsored by the National Association of Counties, affiliated with the AOC and the WIR.

When Breidenthal first disclosed in a county public meeting that the AOC had created a “line item” for his campaign in April 3, 2014, he told former Commissioner Rachor and Jordan that if money was left over, he would seek to establish a special fund with the AOC to help other candidates. However, the account was nearly empty by the end of 2014, though he did receive another contribution in September 2015 from Murphy Lumber that pushed his balance up to $2,400.

The county is currently analyzing the reimbursements it paid to Breidenthal over the past three years and comparing them to expenses he charged to his fund. Some of his trips, including one to Hawaii with his family, are also being reviewed. To date, the county has requested almost $500 in reimbursements from Breidenthal due to questions about the expenses. The county is reviewing almost 1,000 pages of documents related to his travel expenses for the past three years.

A letter dated Nov. 10 from Breidenthal’s attorney, David Griggs, rebuts claims raised in the county’s Ethics Commission complaint. According to Griggs, the Friends of Doug Breidenthal account was set up by the AOC and belongs to the AOC, not Breidenthal.

“There is no evidence he received duplicate expenses,” Griggs wrote.

Griggs said the donations to the Friends of Doug Breidenthal account would not be considered a “gift” under Oregon Revised Statute 244.020. Instead, the same statute provides for exemptions for gifts if they relate to expenses incurred to reimburse him for his official duties.

Former Commissioner Rachor said he had concerns about Breidenthal’s reference to a “line item” for his WIR campaign when it was brought up in 2014.

“I’d never heard of anyone campaigning for a position like this,” Rachor said. “I didn’t think you had to raise money for the WIR.”

Rachor himself was elected to the O&C Counties board, representing the 18 timber-dependent counties in the state. Rachor remembers his name was brought up as a possible candidate and he was approached about the job and said he would accept it. “There was no money raised for that,” Rachor said.

He thought it was excessive that Breidenthal has missed so many county meetings.

“That’s a lot,” he said. “I don’t know that I missed four or five meetings in a given year.”

But, Rachor said, commissioners have different approaches to their work.

“I can’t tell Doug how to do his job,” he said. 

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @reporterdm.