Oregon ethics watchdogs launch new probe into former Secretary of State Fagan’s travel

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission voted unanimously Friday to investigate former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s travel while in office and whether she bilked the state out of thousands of dollars by bringing her family with her on state-funded trips and double-dipping with campaign funds. 

It’s the latest in a series of investigations into Fagan, once viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party and widely expected to run for governor or the U.S. Senate within the next decade. Now, she’s facing scrutiny from state and federal prosecutors and the state ethics commission, which last month began a separate investigation into her conduct in office, including her $10,000-per-month consulting gig with marijuana entrepreneurs involved in an audit conducted by her office. 

Former Republican state lawmaker Julie Parrish submitted the latest complaint to the commission in June, based largely on an article in The Oregonian/Oregon Live that detailed how Fagan’s staff repeatedly warned her against bringing her family, partner and pet on state-funded business trips. The article and Parrish’s complaint also raised questions about whether Fagan was double-compensated for travel expenses, seeking reimbursement from both the state and her campaign funds. 

Parrish specifically asked the commission to investigate five trips:

  • A May 2022 trip to eastern Oregon to visit county clerks and state prisons. Fagan brought her sister, two children and her dog JJ – who she nicknamed the “Secreterrier of State” and used in voter information campaigns. The state employee who accompanied her on the trip, senior adviser Molly Woon, had to rent a separate car, though normally staff and Fagan traveled in the same vehicle.

    The agency doesn’t allow family members to ride in state-paid rental vehicles. Fagan and Woon also stayed in Pendleton two extra nights, costing the state an extra $425, because they scheduled visits at state prisons on a Monday after spending Wednesday through Friday on other state business.
  • An August 2022 trip to the southern Oregon Coast, California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association convention in Sunriver. Fagan said she needed to visit county clerks, tour a state prison, attend a state land board meeting and survey a state research forest.

    Fagan brought her aunt, two children and her dog. She sought state reimbursement to rent a full-sized SUV for her family and booked hotel rooms with two queen beds and pet fees. Woon was also on that trip and again had to rent a separate car.Fagan rented her car on Sunday, Aug. 7 and spent the week traveling, ending her state-related business on Friday, Aug. 12. Instead of returning home, she then traveled to Sunriver for the weekend, keeping the state-funded car while she attended the trial lawyers association conference in her political capacity, and returned the car on Monday, Aug. 15. Fagan asked to reduce her reimbursement by the two days of personal use and was informed by an accountant upon her return that she shouldn’t have kept the car.
  • A spring 2022 trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the National Lieutenant Governors Association. Fagan brought her son on the trip. She also used her personal credit card to book the hotel stay and was reimbursed for it, potentially violating agency policies by receiving rewards points for state-related travel.
  • A July 2022 trip to Chicago for a National Association of Secretaries of State conference. Her children and romantic partner joined her on the trip and may have stayed in a hotel and ridden in taxis and Lyft rides paid for by the state.
  • An April 2023 visit to Washington, D.C., to attend the White House’s annual Easter Egg roll with her children and partner. She used $1,169 in state funds, as well as money from the National Lieutenant Governors Association and her campaign, to pay for the trip, including a four-night stay at a four-star hotel near the White House.

Staff in the Secretary of State’s Office warned Fagan against that trip, according to the complaint and The Oregonian article, saying it wasn’t a necessary part of her job.

Parrish also asked the commission to investigate whether Fagan erred in receiving a reimbursement of almost $129 for a COVID test to attend the Oregon 22 Track and Field Games with former Gov. Kate Brown. 

Audit review

The Audits Division in the Secretary of State’s Office examined Fagan’s travel expenses from April through September of 2022 after an anonymous complaint to the division’s Government Accountability Hotline. The auditor who handled the investigation, Ian Green, recommended that the agency improve its training and require more documentation for travel expenses. 

Fagan included Green’s report in a November complaint she filed against herself with the state ethics commission detailing her August travel. At the time, the commission chose not to take any action, with executive director Ron Bersin writing to Fagan that it appeared she only sought reimbursement for costs related to her official duties. 

The Secretary of State’s Office turned over more than 500 pages of documents related to Fagan’s travel to the commission in response to Parrish’s complaint, and investigator Susan Myers said there wasn’t enough time in the 60-day preliminary review period to fully assess those documents. 

“However, it appears from the current complaint and the additional documentation provided by the Secretary of State’s Office, there may have been more information relating to that trip than was initially provided to us,” Myers told commissioners Friday. “Further investigation is needed in this case to determine whether any of the reimbursements could constitute a prohibited use of office or give rise to a conflict of interest.”

Commissioner Shenoa Payne, an attorney appointed by the House Democratic Caucus, said she was concerned that the commission declined to investigate when Fagan reported herself. 

“It just seems that she made an effort to bring those issues before this commission previously and asked for guidance and this commission declined to investigate previously,” Payne said. “I understand there’s possibly more information before this commission now, but I personally think that’s concerning when somebody self-reports and brings facts before this commission and the commission declines to investigate, but then somebody else reports them and now this commission decides to investigate. That feels concerning to me on some level.”

Payne ultimately voted for the investigation. 

Myers’ preliminary report also noted other potential issues with Fagan’s travel, including renting a full-sized SUV instead of a compact or economy car and requesting hotel rooms with two queen beds instead of a single occupancy room. Travel policies for state agencies generally require using the least expensive option. 

The commission will also investigate Fagan’s side trips, including visits to the Painted Hills and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that didn’t appear to be necessary for state business. And the report cited a spreadsheet produced by employees in the Secretary of State’s Office that flagged possible double reimbursements from her campaign and the state for the same expenses. The agency’s travel policy requires that reimbursements for travel expenses be reduced equivalent to any payments from other sources. 

Commission staff now have 180 days to investigate the complaint against Fagan and present a report to the commission during a public meeting. Then, commissioners will determine whether Fagan violated state ethics laws and can seek to settle the case or have a hearing before a Marion County Circuit Court administrative law judge. 

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and 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.