State election officials opted not to investigate a complaint alleging that a new Democratic state representative doesn’t actually live in the district he represents, citing the complaint’s proximity to the November election.
Hai Pham, a pediatric dentist and Vietnamese refugee, was elected in November to represent the strongly Democratic 36th House District in Hillsboro. A complaint filed before the election by a Republican political operative alleged that Pham doesn’t live in his parents’ home in the district, as he attested in his filing paperwork, but instead resides in the five-bedroom home he purchased in a neighboring district for $1.3 million several years ago.
The complaint filed by Dru Draper, political director of the House Republicans’ 2022 campaign operations, also alleged that Pham made a false statement on the form he filled out to run for office by claiming he lived at his parents’ address. That’s a class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
The Oregon Constitution requires candidates for state House or Senate to live in their district for at least one year prior to the election. In elections after legislative redistricting, including 2022, the constitution requires candidates to establish residency in their districts by Jan. 1 of the election year.
Draper got an answer to his complaint on Jan. 12, three days after Pham took office as part of a historic cohort of five Vietnamese American legislators. Elections Program Manager Alma Whalen, the Secretary of State’s Office’s sole full-time employee dedicated to investigating election complaints, cleared Pham of making a false statement because he changed his address on his driver’s license before he filed to run in February 2022.
Pham changed his address on his driver’s license and voter registration on Jan. 26, 2022, several weeks after the Jan. 1, 2022, deadline to establish residency in a district. Whalen wrote that her investigation didn’t look into whether Pham lived in the district long enough to qualify for office.
“[T]he complaint alleged that you do not qualify to hold the office of state representative for District 36 because you do not meet the durational residency requirements set forth in Article IV of the Oregon Constitution and the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision in Kotek v. Fagan,” Whalen wrote. “The division’s investigation did not evaluate the merits of that allegation.”
Ben Morris, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, said in an email that it was outside of the office’s authority to investigate whether candidates are qualified to hold office if an election is 60 or fewer days away. People challenging Pham’s election would need to file a petition with the Washington County Circuit Court, which they would have needed to do within 40 days after the election. Otherwise, it’s up to the Legislature to police itself.
Pham didn’t return a call from the Capital Chronicle. His campaign consultant, Jake Weigler, sent a short statement.
“The Secretary of State has twice affirmed that Dr. Pham is qualified to serve in this office, and we appreciate their work in resolving this matter,” Weigler wrote. “The representative’s focus is on helping Oregon address the challenges we face when it comes to housing, homelessness, and public education.”
The investigation’s conclusion prompted Republicans and others in and out of the district to call for the Legislature to investigate Pham. David Stein, a district resident who described himself as an independent, said he has called multiple legislators and state and local election officials to share his concerns.
“I don’t have a representative in the House of Representatives,” Stein said. “I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or Republican. I don’t have one because he’s illegally there.”
Questions about residency
Pham purchased a five-bedroom, 6,000-square foot home in an unincorporated area north of Hillsboro for $1.3 million in 2012. It’s in the 31st House District, which freshman Republican Rep. Brian Stout, R-Columbia City, won with almost 60% of the vote in 2022.
Campaign photos showed Pham, his wife, Natalie, and their young son at their home in unincorporated Hillsboro. He told the Secretary of State’s office that it’s still the primary residence for his wife and son and that he spends time there, but that they also spend time with him in a home in Hillsboro.
That three-bedroom home, owned by Binh, Vonnie and Doris Pham, is in the 36th House District. Pham told the Secretary of State’s office that he helped his parents purchase it with the intent of living with them to care for them as they aged.
“One of the factors the Division considers in determining a person’s residence is where members of their (immediate) family reside,” Whalen wrote. “Though the term ‘immediate family’ typically includes a person’s spouse, their children and their parents, the division understands that this is particularly true for you because of your cultural background. In your response, you stated that because you are the eldest son, it is your ‘duty…honor and privilege…to care for (your) parents.’”
A subsequent investigation by the Capital Chronicle found other discrepancies, including Pham listing the business address of his dental practice as his home address on campaign paperwork and listing the ZIP code of his unincorporated home on his campaign Facebook page.
Records provided by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office in response to a records request showed that the Elections Division questioned whether he was qualified to run for the office when he first filed. Compliance Specialist Lydia Plukchi emailed Pham on March 1, 2022, asking for more information to prove that he had established residency in the 36th House District by Jan. 1.
“We normally determine if candidates meet residency requirement (sic) by checking their voter registration record,” Plukchi wrote. “It appears that you updated your registration on January 26, 2022 to show your new residence.”
She asked him to send other documents, such as a driver’s license, vehicle registration, utility bill or rent agreement, that could prove his residency.
In a reply, Pham didn’t claim to have lived in the district by Jan. 1, 2022, but said he was a joint owner of the “intergenerational” home where his parents lived. Pham isn’t listed as an owner of the home on Washington County tax records, but he provided the elections office with a 2019 letter from a mortgage broker referring to him as one of three buyers of the property.
The Secretary of State’s office and Oregon courts previously rejected property ownership as proof of residency in the high-profile case of New York Times columnist and gubernatorial hopeful Nick Kristof. Kristof and his family owned seven properties in Yamhill County when he filed to run for office last year, but the Supreme Court ruled that Kristof’s decision to vote in New York in 2020 outweighed his history of Oregon property ownership. Candidates for governor must be Oregon residents for three years prior to the election; legislative candidates need to have lived in their district for one year.
Pham also sent Plukchi a September 2021 copy of the “Statewide Major Party Quick Guide,” a one-page sheet from the Secretary of State’s Office explaining how to file to run as a Democrat or Republican in 2022. That revision of the guide told potential legislative candidates that they needed to establish residency by Feb. 1, 2022, based on an Oregon Supreme Court decision that turned out to be moot.
Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census, and a delay in 2020 census data meant Oregon didn’t complete redistricting until the fall of 2021. The state constitution required the Legislature to complete redistricting by July 1, 2021, so the Oregon Supreme Court intervened that spring to set new deadlines.
The Court’s ruling said that new legislative districts would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, if the maps drawn by the Legislature complied with state law, and Feb. 1, 2022, if the court had to order any changes in response to legal challenges. The Supreme Court upheld the legislative districts in November 2021, meaning legislative hopefuls needed to establish residency by Jan. 1.
In his March letter to the Elections Division, Pham said he followed the September 2021 revision of the candidate guide and updated his voter registration and driver’s license to reflect that he considered his parents’ home his residence.
“I concluded that it was possible to run if I acted quickly,” he said. “I have attached an image of that guide. Knowing my family’s home in the district, and that many of the patients I serve through my dental practice also live in the district, I decided to make that home my residence based on the guidance provided by the Secretary of State.”
Election complaint lingers
The Secretary of State’s Office cleared Pham to run, and he ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. He coasted to victory in November, winning 60% of the vote over Republican Greer Trice.
It wasn’t clear why the office approved his candidacy in the first place. Whalen’s letter to Pham said that the Elections Division determined he was qualified to run based on his letter and supporting documents, which included the mortgage letter and out-of-date candidate guide.
Draper filed his complaint on Oct. 27. The Secretary of State’s Office informed Pham that a complaint existed on Election Day, Nov. 8, and it finished its investigation on Jan. 12.
No one filed a contest to Pham’s election with the Washington County Circuit Court within the statutory deadline of 40 days after the Nov. 8 election.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan is requesting funding from the Legislature to hire two additional employees to investigate election complaints. It now takes an average of four months to close complaints, Fagan told legislators last month.
The state House has the authority to decide whether to seat an elected representative. The House also has the authority to expel lawmakers, though only one lawmaker has ever been expelled: former Rep. Mike Nearman, who helped plan an armed incursion into the Capitol in 2020. If Pham were to leave office for any reason, state law requires that his role be filled by another Democrat appointed by the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
Bill Adams, who runs his insurance business from the same office park where Pham has his dental practice, said he accepted that he doesn’t agree with Pham’s political stances and probably wouldn’t agree with anyone appointed to replace him. But he said honesty was more important than political views, comparing Pham to Republican U.S. Rep. George Santos, who has faced calls for resignation after reporters at the New York Times and elsewhere discovered that he fabricated much of his résumé.
“We have laws, we have rules and if you try and circumvent them by being dishonest, you’re kinda like the guy in the U.S. House of Representatives from New York,” Adams said. “Get them out of there.”
Oregon Capital Chronicle
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