Sens. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, left, and Tim Knopp, R-Bend, confer on the Senate floor on Wednesday. (Photo by Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon’s ethics watchdog advised Friday that legislative leaders can’t hire family members for political caucuses, though lawmakers still can hire their spouses and children as personal assistants. 

The nine-page opinion approved by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission doesn’t name lawmakers, but it stems from Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp’s attempt this summer to hire his son, Reagan, as the Senate GOP’s chief of staff. In that role, Reagan Knopp would have worked for the entire Senate Republican caucus, not just his father. 

Legislators from both sides of the aisle have routinely hired spouses or children as their assistants, reasoning that they need employees they can trust. Legislative staff can also make more than lawmakers, who earn a base salary of about $33,000 annually. 

In 2007, in the wake of an ethics scandal in which beverage industry lobbyists paid for lawmakers to travel to Hawaii, the Legislature passed a number of ethics reform laws, including a prohibition on public officials participating in decisions to hire family members. But they left one exception: Lawmakers could employ family members on their “personal legislative staff.” 

Legislative attorneys concluded in July that Knopp could “likely” hire his son, Willamette Week reported. They reasoned that because the House speaker, Senate president and minority leaders have sole authority to hire, supervise and fire caucus employees, they counted as “personal legislative staff” of those legislative leaders. Senior deputy legislative counsel Dan Gilbert also noted that a former Senate minority leader hired her daughter-in-law to serve in the same position that Knopp sought for his son. 

On Oct. 7, nearly four months after his office advised Knopp that he could hire his son, legislative counsel Dexter Johnson asked the government ethics commission to weigh in. The commission, which consists of two members appointed by each of the four legislative caucuses and a chair appointed by the governor, disagreed with the legislative attorneys’ opinion.

“The challenge with that argument is that it appears to stretch the meaning of ‘personal’ beyond its plain, natural and ordinary meaning,” the commission’s written opinion said. 

Jonathan Thompson, a commissioner who helped draft the 2007 laws when he was the Senate GOP’s legislative director, said he believes the exception for “personal” staff was put in place to maintain the status quo of hiring family as assistants while blocking the presiding officer of the House or Senate from installing family in cushy jobs. 

“This was meant to be that a senator from Pendleton comes over, he brings his wife with him and she needs something to do so he hires her to be in his office,” Thompson said. “That’s what this exception was designed for, so this definitely muddies the water.” 

Commissioner Dan Mason, a Portland-area community manager of townhomes and apartments appointed by the House Republican Caucus, said many people don’t know how the Legislature works. The ethics commission can provide more clarity, Mason said. 

“They see a news story and see how legislators are hiring a relative, think ‘Why isn’t that wrong?’ and automatically jump to conclusions that make government look worse than it already is in the eyes of the general public,” Mason said.

Commissioner Shenoa Payne, an attorney appointed by the House Democratic caucus, said commissioners should consider public perception, and that the general public wouldn’t be happy to have legislators hiring family. 

At one point last week, a list of bills the House Rules Committee planned to propose in the 2023 session included a measure prohibiting lawmakers from hiring relatives. That proposal was removed from the final list of measures the committee intends to introduce, though lawmakers still could attempt to remove the legislative nepotism exception during the session that begins Jan. 17. 

Reagan Knopp told the Capital Chronicle via text that he is now working as Knopp’s district chief of staff and was never on the caucus’s payroll.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.