Here’s another story involving the free press using the Freedom of Information Act and open record laws. It a follow-up to a previous blog post, Pet travel, flight upgrades, meeting with a conspiracy theorist: How a struggling Oregon county spent federal safety net money. Which was a follow-up to another previous blog post, Struggling Oregon county spent $490,000 in federal safety net money on pro-timber video, animal trapping.
The full story from the Oregonian, written by Rob Davis, is available here.
During a contentious hearing Wednesday morning in Roseburg, a handful of Douglas County residents called for county commissioners to resign over their lavish spending of federal safety net money.
The community protest came days after a story in The Oregonian/OregonLive revealed that county leaders spent the federal money on first-class and premium airfare, banquet awards dinners, conferences around the West, pet travel and dozens of meals without itemized receipts.
The commissioners spent $43,000 on their own travel from a Secure Rural Schools safety net program called Title III. The money was supposed to be spent on firefighting, wildfire planning and search and rescue efforts. Instead it was spent on behalf of leaders in a county so broke it shut down all its libraries in 2017.
Much of their federally funded travel was to lobby Congress against restrictions on federal logging. Most of the spending covered basic costs — hotels and airfare. But other expenses drove up the cost of the trips.
In the meeting, as well as in a Sunday advertisement in the Roseburg News-Review and a bulletin emailed to Douglas County residents and news media outlets, commissioners have repeatedly questioned the accuracy of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s story.
“If you expect to come in here and demand our resignation based on some false garbage that some environmentalist reporter put in the newspaper, it’s not going to happen,” county commissioner Chris Boice told residents during Wednesday’s meeting.
Here are key parts of what county commissioners said in their newspaper advertisement and email to county residents — with the newsroom’s response below. All the receipts can be found here.
“First, when asked, we have gladly answered media inquiries openly and honestly.”
Douglas County did not provide all of its receipts for six months. The newsroom filed three formal requests for the records and had to spend nearly $2,000 to get them.
The county released a small number of receipts in June, refused to answer subsequent questions about missing receipts and then ignored another request in August.
After the newsroom sent a third request in October and threatened a legal challenge, county officials said they had more records. They charged the newsroom $2,000. The county said in a late December letter the request was closed. After a reporter asked questions, a county spokeswoman said the newsroom owed another $700 because it had taken longer to assemble the documents than expected.
“The receipts provided clearly show that the hotel “pet free” (sic) was paid for personally by Commissioner Freeman directly to the hotel and not charged to the county credit card.”
The receipts provided by the county show the pet fee as part of a $99.11 charge incurred by Commissioner Tim Freeman at the Sunriver Resort. A county credit card, records show, was used to pay the $99.11 charge with a handwritten notation saying “Title III.”
“The recent articles fail to explain the Title III fund spending guidelines. Educational travel is one of only three approved and allowable uses for these particular funds. The other two allowable uses are grants for Communities for Healthy Forests and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services.”
Federal law says the three current approved uses are:
1. Carrying out activities under the Firewise Communities program to provide education and assistance to homeowners who are building or landscaping homes in fire-sensitive ecosystems;
2. To reimburse counties for search and rescue and emergency services like firefighting that happened on federal land and were paid for by the county;
3. To develop community wildfire protection plans.
Before 2008, federal regulations and the county’s records show, the money could be spent on a broader range of initiatives including educational after-school programs. County officials say their travel is educational.
Their trips are not after-school programs.
“As much as Douglas County and the other 700 counties that received these funds would like, we are not able to use them for libraries, public safety, law enforcement or ‘basic services’ as portrayed in the news articles. It is simply; not legal.”
The stories did not claim the money could be used to fund libraries, which the county defunded and closed in 2017. But it can fund some public safety costs. The money can be spent to reimburse counties for search and rescue and emergency services like firefighting that happened on federal land and were paid for by the county.
“In 2012 the United States Forest Service issued a report, and then in 2016 performed an audit review on multiple counties’ Title III expenditures. Both the report and the audit concluded that Douglas County was in compliance with the federal guidelines for the use and spending of Title III dollars.””
This isn’t what happened.
In 2012, auditors with the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the Title III program suffered from weak oversight. The GAO reviewed Douglas County’s spending as part of that audit. The resulting report did not render an opinion on whether it was lawful. The audit faults counties for incorrectly interpreting the permitted uses of the money.
Without specifically citing Douglas County, the GAO report says counties in Oregon provided federal officials at the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management “with information describing their Title III projects beyond what was required in the act, but even so, agency officials told us that neither agency has reviewed this information to determine whether those Title III projects were allowable under the act.”
A 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture audit also looked at spending in Douglas County and a handful of others. Without specifically citing Douglas County, it also noted problems. Counties “used their own interpretations” to decide how the money should be spent, it said. The 2016 audit said the money was “at risk for misuse.”
“These dollars were never and will never be used for personal travel. Reports to the contrary are false.”
The story did not say this.
“Counties that receive Title III dollars have used them for travel to attend conferences, forest land related meetings; industry seminars and responsible forest management education. These are all educational and qualified expenditures.”