Investigation to Look into Possible Ethics Violations in Morrow County

Spools of fiber-optic cable sit outside of Windwave Communications in Boardman, with an Amazon data center in the background. Four local officials who were involved in land sales and tax breaks for Amazon purchased Windwave, which produces fiber-optic service for Amazon, in 2018. The Oregon Government Ethics Commission on Friday, Dec. 16, voted to investigate the four. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian)

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Hermiston Herald and is part of a content-sharing partnership between Northeast Oregon Now and the Hermiston Herald.

By Phil Wright

One Morrow County commissioner, two Port of Morrow commissioners and the port’s former general manager are under the microscope for possible ethical violations.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission on Friday, Dec. 16, voted to conduct full investigations of county Commissioner Don Russell, port Commissioners Marv Padberg and Jerry Healy and of Gary Neal, who in 2018 retired as the port’s general manager, because they may have used their positions to their benefit themselves as owners of the fiber optics company Windwave, which provides fiber-optic services to Amazon data centers in Morrow County.

Ethics commission investigator Susan Myers delivered the preliminary review reports of the four, explaining a complaint alleges Russell, Healy, Padberg and Neal violated their ethical obligations to disclose conflicts of interest and not take part in deals involving Amazon data centers.

Russel and Healy also serve on the Columbia River Enterprise Zone, the joint organization between Morrow County and the Port of Morrow that negotiates with Amazon to bring data centers into Morrow County. Neal is a former CREZ member.

Healy and Padberg serve on the Inland Development Corp., the nonprofit the port, county and Morrow Development Corp. operate to provide internet services.

Russell also is on the board of the Columbia Development Authority, which Neal used to serve on.

Myers explained the review only involved a sampling of minutes from meetings of the various boards, but it appears the four participated in discussions related to Amazon.

She pointed to one instance in which Russell during a county board meeting in December 2019 paused the meeting to call the ethics commission, and when the meeting resumed, “the minutes indicate that he was advised to disclose a potential conflict of interest due to his interest in Windwave.”

Russell did so at that meeting and in some subsequent meetings. But before that phone call, Myers said, Russell participated in discussions about Amazon with no disclosure about his involvement with Windwave.

The review showed Padberg and Healy disclosed conflicts or potential conflicts of interest during port commission meetings, and Padberg abstained from voting on matters regarding Amazon. But Myers said that is based only on the minutes available on the port’s website, which are from November 2021 to August 2022.

CREZ meeting minutes also will be part of the investigation. Myers said CREZ board meeting minutes show Russell participated in meetings that discussed data centers and he may have participated in negotiations with Amazon. CREZ minutes also show Healy had potential conflicts of interest due to discussions about Amazon but did not show he made any disclosures about those conflicts.

The ethics commission’s jurisdiction stretches back no more than four years, Myers said, so for Neal an investigation would only look at his involvement in 2018 from September to when he retired Dec. 21. She said a response from Neal asserts he recused himself from taking any actions relating to Amazon in September 2018, but the investigation has not been able to confirm that recusal in meeting minutes.

A full investigation, Myers said, would involve interviewing Neal and others, as well as obtaining and reviewing meeting minutes, including records of executive sessions, to determine if the four had any conflict of interest they did not disclose or profited from. She said the port commission frequently held executive sessions regarding property negotiations and some of those may have been about Amazon data centers.

Russell, Healy, Padberg and Neal each gave statements to the commission. The four universally cited their commitment to public service in Morrow County and touted the economic growth of the county. Each also said they believed they had not violated ethical boundaries

“It has always been my core belief that, if possible, you should give back to your community and try to make it a better place,” Russell told the ethics commission. “And I’ve done my best to live out that belief.”

“I’ve made every effort to follow an ethical path,” Healy said. “And never knowingly violated standards of ethical behavior.”

The ethics commission in each case voted 8-0 for further investigation.

While the commission found a “substantial objective basis for believing” each may have violated Oregon ethics regulations, ethics commission Chair David Fiskum said moving to a full investigation is a decision to determine if violations occurred. It does not mean there was a violation.