Ethics panel to investigate I-5 bridge adviser

PORTLAND, Ore. — Gov. John Kitzhaber’s top adviser on the failed Columbia River Crossing project is under investigation for potential violations of state ethics law.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission decided to formally investigate accusations that Patricia McCaig did not register as a lobbyist, as required, and had a conflict of interest by working for both the governor and the prime consultant on the project.

The investigation will likely take close to six months, Ronald Bersin, the commission’s executive director, said Monday.

The commission’s preliminary review, prepared in a report dated July 2, said the investigation is warranted because there is “substantial objective basis” to believe McCaig may have violated rules. McCaig, 59, denied the allegations in a written response to the panel.

“My work is transparent, properly reported and appropriately detailed,” she wrote.

The Oregon Legislature, with prodding from the governor’s office, approved $450 million this spring for a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., but the $3.4 billion project fell apart when Washington state lawmakers declined to pay that state’s share.

Two people filed ethics complaints in March after the Willamette Week newspaper obtained documents that showed David Evans and Associates, a design-and-management firm with a financial interest in the bridge project, signed McCaig Communications &Opinion Research Inc. to a $90-an-hour contract in 2009, before she was hired by the governor.

Although the bridge ultimately went nowhere, David Evans and Associates billed $37 million for the work it performed. McCaig Communications was paid more than $400,000 through the end of April 2013.

The commission’s preliminary review said McCaig may have engaged in a conflict of interest each time her recommendation or action as the governor’s adviser had an effect on the business with which she is associated.

As for lobbying laws, the review said “select portions” of McCaig’s contract with David Evans and Associates indicate that entities such as the Oregon and Washington transportation departments “were apparently to receive assistance in gaining a legislative result.”

McCaig, in her response, denied violating lobbying regulations, saying she provided factual information to legislators as requested but did not attempt to influence legislative action.

“I did not overlook, nor forget, to register as a lobbyist,” she wrote. “I fundamentally believed that I was not required to register.”

McCaig is being investigated for eight possible violations. The maximum penalty is $5,000 per violation.

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