A senior state economist says that high-ranking Oregon officials discriminated against him last year, when they picked a less-qualified candidate to fill one of the Capitol’s highest-paying positions.
Mazen Malik, a 17-year employee of the Legislative Revenue Office, says he was overlooked for the top job in that office because of his Palestinian ethnicity and a targeted online smear campaign. Lawmakers instead tapped Chris Allanach, a longtime co-worker of Malik’s, for the job of legislative revenue officer.
The existence of Malik's formal complaint has been mentioned in the halls of the Capitol for weeks, but only became public Wednesday. An outside investigator concluded the complaint was largely unfounded. It will be the subject of a hearing of the House and Senate conduct committees later this month.
The 37-page report is winding and complicated, with callbacks to Malik’s participation in antiracist demonstrations as a graduate student in Portland, and dissections of state rules for how vacant positions must be filled.
At its heart, though, the complaint suggests that Malik’s ethnicity had a pervasive impact on how lawmakers decided who should be the state’s top revenue officer — a job that pays more than $170,000 a year. That decision process included the Legislature’s top ranking members, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, along with other senators, representatives and staffers.
Key to Malik's belief he was discriminated against was an article that appeared in July 2017, on an opinion website that frequently tears down Democratic politicians and policies.
That brief posting, by a New Zealand conservative blogger, used assertions that Malik participated in demonstrations beginning in the 1980s on topics like fighting racism and opposing the Iraq war to insinuate he was a communist and affiliated with Palestinian extremists. Malik says he was pushing back against a racist tide that had begun to overtake Portland in the ‘80s.
"If this was someone else with a different background, this would be a badge of honor for them," said Malik, who was born in Jordan. "But because of who I am and where I come from… that becomes an issue of suspicion."
The article was apparently circulated among lawmakers, and came to the attention of Malik’s boss, then Legislative Revenue Officer Paul Warner. The two spoke about it briefly, with Malik suggesting Warner “could barely utter some brief and unsure words of support.”
Several months later, when Warner announced he’d be retiring as legislative revenue officer, he recommended that Courtney and Kotek appoint Allanach to serve the role on an interim basis. They agreed.
Malik believes he was overlooked because Warner and others "panicked" about the article, and worried about a bad image for the office. He also says it wasn't appropriate for Kotek and Courtney to make the appointment at all. State law says that interim revenue committee in the House and Senate should appoint an interim revenue officer, if they have been created.
“It was obvious that individuals in the Speaker’s office were concerned with the institution’s image rather than the fairness of the hiring process and the consideration of qualifications and abilities,” Malik wrote in his complaint.
Warner denied taking the article or Malik’s ethnicity into account. Neither Kotek nor Courtney said they were aware of the article, the report says, though Malik says he spoke about it with staff in both of their offices.
Malik also points out that among the minimum qualifications for the job of legislative revenue officer were two years of management experience.
Malik had that experience, from a stint at the Oregon Department of Transportation. Allanach did not.
Warner would eventually say Malik “generated the most complaints amongst the Legislative Revenue Office staff,” the investigation says. He told Malik that his recommendation of Allanach was “for the good of the office.”
Malik says that was one of a rotating cast of excuses.
"The stories kept changing with time," he said. "That was just the latest story."
When it came time for lawmakers from the House and Senate to pick a new permanent legislative revenue officer, Malik was one of 36 people to apply. He was one of six applicants to advance to the interview phase.
“One applicant, Mr. Allanach, did not meet the [minimum qualification] requirement for two years of professional management experience,” the investigation says. “The remaining candidates selected for an interview all had at least four years of professional management experience.”
The report notes, though, that lawmakers were allowed to subjectively consider “a combination of education and experience” while considering applicants’ fitness.
Malik’s candidacy went no further than a phone interview. Allanach, whom lawmakers said “was viewed as the ‘#2 guy in LRO’” according to the investigation, was formally named legislative revenue officer in May 2018.
Only one lawmaker who served on the appointment committee had heard of the article about Malik, the investigation says. All denied basing decisions on his ethnicity.
After raising concerns about the process with legislative lawyers and human resources staff, Malik filed a formal discrimination complaint in March 2019. He says he doesn’t harbor any resentment toward Allanach, writing: “In my mind Chris is an innocent bystander who was lucky to be in the right place in the right time. None of this is his fault or responsibility.”
After interviewing 14 current and former Capitol officials and reviewing documents, an investigator with the law firm Jackson Lewis found many of Malik’s assertions unfounded.
The investigation “did not reveal any evidence” that Warner failed to recommend Malik because of his ethnicity. It notes Warner had hired Malik in the first place, and had also promoted him.
The report also found no evidence that Kotek and Courtney didn’t appoint Malik to the interim revenue officer position because of his ethnicity, or that the permanent selection process for the revenue officer position was discriminatory. It did not speak to Malik's contention that it wasn't appropriate for Kotek and Courtney to make the appointment in the first place.
The investigation agreed with Malik that the hiring process was subjective, but did not conclude that it put him at a disadvantage.
“This Investigator does not discount the potential for implicit bias against minority groups, including Palestinians,” the report reads. “Here, however, even though subjectivity was permitted in the process, there is no evidence to suggest that the hiring committee was biased against Complainant, much less that the committee acted upon any biases and discriminated against Complainant on the basis of a protected characteristic.”
The investigation into Malik’s complaint is scheduled to be considered by Senate and House conduct committees on July 23. To avoid any conflict of interest regarding the complaint, Sen. Mark Hass — one of the lawmakers who picked a permanent revenue officer — was removed as chair of the Senate conduct committee last month.
Malik said Wednesday that he'd initially hoped to keep his complaint as strictly internal matter, and had not sought out a process where it would get a public hearing.
"Bias doesn’t disappear overnight, and it's not by appearances or court cases that you’re going to make people get to the point where they have better ways of dealing with things," he said. "There needs to be some level or recognition of that bias or that mistake, and some level of remedy."