The Malheur Enterprise, a small newspaper in eastern Oregon, spent months investigating a state lawmaker’s business deals and contract work in Malheur County. But on Monday, the newspaper reported an unusual development: Now the county wants to investigate the Malheur Enterprise — for harassment.
The problem? Reporters made too many phone calls and sent too many emails, at least in the eyes of local government officials.
The newspaper broke the news Monday morning after learning that Malheur County’s legal counsel had asked the sheriff to investigate whether reporters’ persistent attempts to contact officials, sometimes after business hours or using their personal email accounts, amounted to a violation of the law.
State Rep. Greg Smith, the Republican lawmaker at the center of the journalists’ investigation and who also serves as director of Malheur County Economic Development on a contract basis, complained to the newspaper: “It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” and asked “to not have our employees contacted outside of their work place,” the paper reported.
But Les Zaitz, the editor and publisher of the Enterprise, said in a statement that reporters were only trying to do their jobs.
“Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise,” said Zaitz, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist while a reporter at the Oregonian. He added: “We are a small, independently owned news source trying to hold public officials accountable. Rather than provide information and truth, local officials appear more interested in criminalizing a profession protected by the First Amendment.”
Malheur County Sheriff Brian E. Wolfe told the Enterprise that his office had not yet decided whether to begin an investigation as of Monday morning, but he pointed the paper to Oregon’s “telephonic harassment” criminal statute for its review. The law says a crime has been committed if a caller “intentionally harasses or annoys another person” at a number they have been forbidden to use.
On Tuesday, Smith told The Washington Post that he supports journalists’ First Amendment rights and believes Zaitz and his reporters have the right to contact him at any time through any means, but he took issue with their efforts to contact his employees outside of work. They are privately employed by Smith’s company, Gregory Smith & Company; however, they work on publicly funded projects through Smith’s contract with the Mulheur County Economic Development Department.
One of Smith’s employees was formerly terminated from the Enterprise, which Smith alleged was one reason the newspaper targeted his office. Smith said that the dozens of emails and calls to him over the last several months have been “annoying, but for my employees, one of whom was terminated, it’s harassment.”
Zaitz declined to discuss internal employment matters but said Smith’s contention that the terminated Enterprise employee had anything to do with the paper’s interest in investigating the legislator was “absolutely not true.” The investigation was focused on Smith’s management of the agency and his business, not on the former employee, Zaitz said.
“What motivated the Enterprise is our interest in establishing the truth and the details about the operation of a costly county agency," Zaitz said, adding: “Mr. Smith has made an issue out of nothing to distract attention from his own conduct and performance. The question is, why won’t Greg Smith respond to legitimate questions that the community wants answers to?”
Wolfe and Malheur County Counsel Stephanie Williams did not immediately respond to requests for comment left Monday by The Washington Post — albeit after hours.
If pursued, the investigation would fit into a larger pattern of intimidation of journalists by government officials, notably the president, over the past several years, argued Kyu Ho Youm, a communications law professor focused on the First Amendment at the University of Oregon. He described an “anti-press climate” that has emboldened local officials to take legally questionable action against reporters in the face of unfavorable coverage.
In May, for example, police in San Francisco raided a journalist’s home after he refused to reveal his source on a confidential police report he had obtained, even though journalists in California are protected by shield laws. In April, the international organization Reporters Without Borders downgraded the United States to “problematic” status for the first time since the it began tracking press freedom in 2002, citing increasing threats of violence against journalists and President Trump’s hostility, as he repeatedly describes the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”
That hostility, Youm said, appears “unmistakably connected” to local officials’ attempts to crack down on journalists. He called Malheur County’s request to the sheriff for an investigation a “remarkable abuse” of the law.
“They’re undoubtedly overreaching their boundaries as government officials and criminalizing ordinary phone calls and emails that are apart of news reporting,” he said. “It is fundamentally antithetical to freedom of the press in the United States, and this is more intimidation than anything that responsible government authorities [would do].”
The Enterprise began its investigation into Smith earlier this year, focusing on government contracts he has won for his economic development business, Gregory Smith & Company, while juggling his roles as a state lawmaker and director of Malheur County’s economic development department. The coverage has questioned whether the revolving roles have created conflicts of interest, given Smith’s influence on the legislature’s budget-writing committee.
But according to the newspaper, Smith frequently stonewalled reporters. In one case, instead of answering questions for a May story, he simply responded: “Should economic harm occur from your story, I will be happy to provide you the names of my legal team.”
In its most recent article scrutinizing Smith and the economic development department, Smith ignored two sets of written questions and numerous voice mails seeking comment, the Enterprise reported. The story was about a tax break that the county, under Smith’s direction, allegedly wrongly promised to a car-wash business. But after it was published, Smith issued a public statement Wednesday to challenge the article — and complained about phone calls and emails.
“Over the last six months,” he wrote, “as me and my staff have been subjected to endless phone calls, hostile emails at all hours of the day and unwelcome office visits, I have grown increasingly confused with the Malheur Enterprise’s obsession with our county’s economic development department. We do good work in Malheur County. We help businesses thrive and assist in providing Oregonians with new opportunities for employment. It’s unfortunate that the Enterprise’s months-long vendetta against our office seems to have no end in sight.”
On Monday, the Enterprise reported that it learned from Smith last week that he and his colleagues were “instructed to turn over your emails to the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office.” Smith told the newspaper he had asked reporters to “limit your requests to office hours” and to a single county email address. The Enterprise noted it was calling a phone number that Smith gave out at a public meeting last fall, describing it as his “personal” cell number and telling the audience he was available “24/7” to respond to questions or concerns. “Please call me directly,” he reportedly said. The Enterprise also found the number on public news releases.
But in her request for an investigation, Williams said Smith had asked the paper not to call and that “it was disregarded.”
Youm said he could identify no law that would bar a journalist from contacting a public official after hours or on nongovernment phone numbers or emails.