Learning curve, layoffs beset new Oregon Secretary of State's first month in office

SALEM - Oregon's new secretary of state, Dennis Richardson, ran on a platform that emphasized he'd be a tough auditor-in-chief. Now in office and in charge of the Audits Division, he has a tall order: Learn a lot about audits in short time, as he had not...

Learning curve, layoffs beset new Oregon Secretary of State's first month in office

SALEM - Oregon's new secretary of state, Dennis Richardson, ran on a platform that emphasized he'd be a tough auditor-in-chief. Now in office and in charge of the Audits Division, he has a tall order: Learn a lot about audits in short time, as he had not read one before taking office. 

"I don't recall having read a performance audit from cover to cover," Richardson told The Oregonian/OregonLive last week. "I had only been in this office twice before I had been elected. You don't know what you don't know." 

Richardson, a Republican, is the first statewide elected official to take over an agency run by a leader from the other party in more than a decade. Some of his first actions have been to reorganize key staff - letting go of one division head, hiring a controversial deputy and elections chief and launching a national search for a new audits director. 

Richardson, who served in the Legislature for a dozen years before being elected secretary of state, said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive that he's still in a "learning phase" of how to run the agency. "I've been doing all that I can to learn and to catch up," he said. 

He is paring back staff in his elections division, eliminating one of two deputy director positions and laying off another worker. But he said that is to save money and because one-time federal grant funds that pay for the positions are dwindling, not because he is less committed to helping voters. 

"There would have been no changes in personnel if there was going to be any problem with maintaining or improving services," he said. "The public will not notice any difference." 

Emails from outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Robert Taylor, obtained via a records request, show Richardson told Taylor shortly after being elected that he had never read a performance audit produced by the state. Often dense, lengthy documents, audits evaluate state agency programs and recommend ways to improve services or save money. Having read an audit is not a qualification to hold the office of secretary of state.

<a href="https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3458783-Robert-Taylor-Email/annotations/337915.html">View note</a>

During Richardson's years as the powerful co-chairman of the Legislature's budget-writing committee, the Secretary of State's Office released dozens of audits including on the state's overall financial health, university administration and public employee pension system. 

In an interview, Taylor, a Democrat, said he was surprised by Richardson's admission that he had not read an audit.

"It was stunning that he said it," Taylor said. "Just the whole thing was surprising." 

Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, who's co-chairman of the budget-writing committee and ran for secretary of state last year, said he has "actively reviewed" state audits as part of his budget-writing role. 

Richardson campaigned heavily on reforming how the state audits its agencies. While a candidate, he called for audits of the failed health care enrollment website Cover Oregon, Columbia River Crossing bridge project and the embattled and now-defunct Business Energy Tax Credit program. 

Richardson said he has read a performance audit all the way through since taking office, and hopes to change how they're written to make them more valuable for legislators and the public.

The Audits Division is currently run by an interim director, so Richardson is conducting a national search for a permanent director. There are three candidates, he said. 

Richardson already hired a replacement for Taylor. His new deputy, Leslie Cummings, left her IT manager job at the Employment Department after being caught up in accusations of nepotism and wasting public funds. Cummings was one of several officials that oversaw a failed database project that wasted up to $30 million, according to an earlier Oregonian/OregonLive investigation. 

Richardson is also searching for a permanent Human Resources Division director after he laid off Jackie Steffens from that job in January.  

As head of human resources, Steffens was in charge of hiring and firing in 2013 when then-Secretary of State Kate Brown asked her elections director, Steve Trout, to resign for mismanaging election scheduling. Trout later asked Brown for his job back and Steffens drafted the letter telling Trout he wouldn't be rehired, records show. 

After being elected last year, Richardson brought Trout on as a paid member of his transition team and then hired him as elections director. Richardson denied that Steffens' earlier role in ousting Trout was a factor in deciding to let her go. 

"Steve Trout's involvement in this office has nothing to do with what happened with Jackie," Richardson said. "As far as I'm concerned everybody gets a fair shot. Whatever happened years ago - I had no involvement with that. Everybody that I work with gets to be evaluated on their own merits." 

When asked to explain why Steffens was let go, Richardson said he wanted to take the human resources division in a different direction and declined to comment further, citing advice from Oregon Department of Justice attorneys not to speak about personnel matters. 

The Oregonian/OregonLive has obtained an email Steffens sent Richardson after she was fired, in which she expressed concern that her termination may be a reprisal for Trout's ousting.  Steffens wrote that Richardson "drew a connection" between the firings in a termination meeting and that he said he found it ironic that Steffens' and Trout's dismissal letters used similar language. 

"It appears to me from your words and actions that somehow my dismissal was done for 'political' reasons and was connected in some way to the termination of Mr. Trout by a prior administration and/or my working relationships to prior administrations," Steffens wrote. 

The email shows Steffens also raised concerns about "unusual" requests Richardson made, including directing her to send employee compensation information to his wife's private email address, disregarding Steffens' recommendations for "appropriate classification and compensation" of his executive-level staff and asking her to offer a job to someone who had emailed Richardson their resume - without publicly posting the jobs or conducting interviews and a background check. 

Steffens wrote that although she objected to Richardson's approach, she never disobeyed him.

"During your time in office, you never once shared with me your direction for the division or the agency, and I'm unaware that any of my actions didn't support your direction for the division or the agency," she wrote.  "I did everything in my ability to provide you expertise and advice to protect not only you, but the agency while still achieving the results you wanted." 

An agency spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Steffens' email.

As a division head, Steffens worked at-will and had no guarantee of holding onto her job as Richardson's administration transitioned into the Capitol. But Steffens, who served in a relatively nonpartisan position, was also highly respected by previous agency officials. 

Taylor, the outgoing deputy, told Richardson in transition memos that Steffens and the Human Resources Division is "the single strongest voice in the agency for accountability" in terms of fair treatment of employees. 

"I could not have done this job without a positive working relationship with Jackie Steffens in HR," Taylor wrote in the memos, which were obtained by The Oregon/OregonLive via public records request. "She is a true professional and an asset to the agency." 

Richardson said Cheryl Miller, a retired head of HR for the Oregon Health Authority, has been brought in to lead the agency's HR Division until a permanent director is found. 

Within the Elections Division, Richardson has decided to lay off Codi Trudell, a deputy elections director, and Russell Terry, a voter registration official. Richardson said the two were given 30-day notices that they would lose their jobs after Trout advised him that their positions could be eliminated. 

Elections Director Steve Trout.Photo courtesy: Oregon Secretary of State's Office 

Trudell and Terry are paid via grants given through the federal Help America Vote Act, which requires states to provide access to ballots for the disabled. Grant funds are running out, Richardson said, and he would prefer to spend the remaining balance on badly-needed technology upgrades. 

"It's one-time money that's supposed to be used to promote Americans voting," he said of the grant funds. "That means software, hardware. I'm not one that promotes using one-time money to pay salaries. That was an area where I said, 'Take a look at that.' Because when that money's gone, it's gone."  

Although Help America Vote Act funds are declining, positions similar to those held by Trudell and Terry were eliminated by Trout the first time he headed the Elections Division. 

Gene Newton and Dave Franks - high-level employees who both handled compliance with the federal voter laws and voter registration programs - were fired shortly after Trout took over 2010, Newton said in an email. Newton said he only met Trout once, when what was supposed to be an in-depth briefing on ballot compliance turned into Trout telling them their jobs were eliminated. 

"After pouring my heart and soul into Help America Vote Act implementation in Oregon it was quite a slap in the face as well as a shocking decision," Newton said.  Trout seemed "totally disinterested" in those efforts, Newton said, "even given the fact that Oregon was seen nationally as quite a pioneer in helping to make voting more accessible to people with disabilities." 

An Oregonian/OregonLive reporter visited the Elections Division office on the state Capitol Mall in an effort to speak with Trout, but was turned away. Afterwards, a Secretary of State's Office spokesman granted a lengthy interview with Richardson. 

Richardson said that going forward, he has no concerns that his agency will be able to fully comply with federal election laws in Trudell and Terry's absence. The agency will simply have to make due with less resources, Richardson said. 

Linn County Clerk Steve Druckenmiller agreed that voter services would likely be unaffected by the staff adjustments, since those programs are largely carried out by counties. "The secretary of state is going to have to set some internal priorities with using the staff that they have," Druckenmiller said. "Find out what they can and can't accomplish." 

Kate Titus, executive director of accountable government group Common Cause Oregon, said she doesn't see how voter services would go unaffected. "If you lose staff that have been performing functions it raises the question, 'How are those functions going to happen?'" Titus said. 

Titus said she's willing to give Richardson the benefit of the doubt, but is cautious. 

"Compliance with the Help America Vote Act is critical. It's not optional," she said. 

Jim Moore, political science professor at Pacific University, said Richardson's cuts to the Elections Division come at an awkward time. The state has been expanding access to the ballot through the Motor Voter program, which registers eligible voters at the DMV, so it would follow that more resources are needed, not less, he said. 

"The optics are bad because it looks like he is chopping the very people who have helped that expansion happen," Moore said. 

Oregon's special election in May will be the first test of Richardson's reorganization of the Elections Division, Moore said. 

Titus views the situation more warily: "I think we need to be watching this unfold continually," she said. 

-- Gordon R. Friedman

gfriedman@oregonian.com; 503-221-8209


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