In February, Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson had an unusual announcement to make at a meeting with two other city officials.
According to a memo authored by those officials — City Administrator Scott Derickson and City Attorney N. Robert Shields — Swenson explained that he had information about “criminal activity” at an unnamed Woodburn business, and that he’d recently learned there was an ongoing criminal investigation into that business.
Swenson, the memo said, “felt that he needed to come forward to assist the investigation by telling the police about what he knew.” The two officials advised him to do so, and even got ahold of the police chief on his behalf.
Exactly what Swenson decided he had to tell police at the time remains unclear. The mayor declined to offer details on Wednesday, saying that the city is still determining what to release publicly.
What is known is that roughly two weeks after his discussion with police, Swenson filed to run for the state Senate, eventually winning the Democratic nomination. Then he abandoned the campaign, revealing earlier this month that he had decided instead to seek another term as mayor.
The move set off rampant speculation into what prompted Swenson to change course, including accusations he was a “placeholder” candidate who’d never intended to take the job in the first place.
Now, news that Swenson’s name is attached in some manner to an unreleased police investigation offers another possible explanation — albeit one Swenson denies.
“Believe me I understand the interest and the rumors,” Swenson said in an email Wednesday. “I can only say I contributed information to assist in an investigation… As to whether information that appears from me or about me in public documents — or elsewhere — contributed to my decision to withdraw, that was way down on my list.”
A two-term mayor, Swenson announced he was ending his Senate campaign on June 17, a month after winning a three-way race for the Democratic nomination. Local Democratic Party officials are scheduled to meet Thursday to choose a new nominee for the November general election ballot.
Swenson’s decision to quit mid-race immediately generated conspiracy theories, particularly after he recommended that a political ally, state Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, replace him as nominee.
Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, failed in her bid to be the Democratic nominee for the state’s new sixth Congressional seat this year. In running that campaign, she forfeited her ability to seek another term in the Oregon Legislature. Suspicious politicos wondered whether Swenson’s Senate run was just a way to save a space for Alonso Leon in case she missed her shot at the U.S. House. Alonso Leon has confirmed she will vie for the nomination.
“I think it smells a little bit of political impropriety,” said Anthony Rosilez, director of the state’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, who came in third in the Senate primary Swenson won. “You don’t get into a race and a month later decide to get out.”
Rosilez and the primary’s second-place finisher, attorney Rich Walsh, both plan to seek the nomination on Thursday.
Swenson says his Senate campaign was legitimate, but that he realized earlier this month he’d prefer to serve another term as Woodburn’s mayor. That’s the same reason he offered on an official form withdrawing his Senate candidacy filed with the Oregon Secretary of State.
“My decision to withdraw was based principally on wanting to do the important work in Woodburn that as Mayor I can continue to do,” Swenson said in the email Wednesday, adding that his attempt to recruit a qualified candidate for the mayor’s office “had proven unsuccessful.”
Still, Swenson’s announcement he was abandoning his Senate run came at a notable time. Just a day before he left the race, Woodburn officials received a public records request for the police investigation in which the mayor had participated.
That request was filed by Anthony Medina, chair of the Woodburn school board and a current Democratic candidate for a state House district. It set officials into motion figuring out how to respond.
Asked why he requested the document, Medina told OPB via email: “I filed a police report in February and submitted a public records request to receive a copy of that report. I have cooperated with a followup investigation into this report and been advised by police that because this relates to an ongoing investigation, I shouldn’t make any further comment at this time.”
Swenson told OPB that the record request’s proximity to the end of his Senate campaign was coincidental. He said he’d actually decided to drop out a week before his announcement, “after a morning conversation with the last possible candidate I was hoping to convince to run [for mayor].”
Senate District 11 cuts a path north from Salem, scooping up Keizer, Gervais and Woodburn. The district is currently represented by Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest-serving lawmaker in state history.
But Courtney, a Democrat, is retiring, and the district was redrawn last year to encompass the home of veteran Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher, who will face the eventual Democratic nominee. Because of that new makeup, SD 11 is expected to feature among the most hard-fought races in the state Senate this year.
“I didn’t know this was going to happen,” Courtney told OPB last week of Swenson’s decision to leave the race. “I thought we were getting behind the mayor of Woodburn. I had no warning, no call, nothing.”
While its details remain foggy, the police investigation Swenson participated in has prompted recent legal action within Woodburn City Hall. On Monday, the city council authorized the city to hire outside attorneys in order to advise Woodburn staff on the matter. Records show the city will pay Jeffrey Condit, an attorney with the firm Miller Nash, $395 an hour for his services.
The council did not explain that decision in its meeting, approving the hire alongside other “consent agenda” items that officials did not debate or hear testimony on. But the memo by Derickson and Shields, obtained via public records request, shows that the move came as a result of concerns over how to release details of the police investigation in which the mayor was involved.
The memo says that the two city officials became concerned when Medina’s records request arrived June 16. They worried they would have a conflict of interest in deciding whether to release statements Swenson made to the police.
“...The City Administrator and City Attorney cannot simultaneously report to the Mayor and also decide if the Mayor’s statement can be disclosed,” the memo said.
Neither Derickson nor Shields had reviewed the contents of the investigation, they wrote.
OPB is among entities that has requested police investigatory information related to Swenson prior to the council voting to tap outside legal help.
While Woodburn council members gave no indication Monday why they were hiring an outside attorney, they did express curiosity about the matter. At the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Mary Beth Cornwell suggested that the council be provided with a copy of any records related to the police investigation.
“For the good of the public,” she said, “I just think that we would like to have a copy of what is being investigated when it’s available.”
When other members of the council supported the move, Swenson’s response was brief.
“All right,” he said. “Happy reading.”