In her eight years as a Multnomah County commissioner, Loretta Smith has been a dogged advocate for communities of color and low-income people in her district.
She has pushed the county to fund hundreds of paid summer internships for disadvantaged youth, partnered with the city of Portland’s economic development agency to launch an investment fund for businesses started by people of color and helped stop cuts to a program that provides in-home care for poorer seniors.
“I put my money where my mouth is,” Smith said. “I fight, I lead, and I’m a champion for younger people, older people and low-income folks.”
Her considerable successes in her district and her political pedigree — more than 20 years working for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden — should have made her a frontrunner in the race for an open seat on the Portland City Council.
But questions about Smith’s use of public resources for personal and campaign expenses and her public fights with staff and colleagues have frequently overshadowed her accomplishments — and cost her political support in her campaign against Jo Ann Hardesty, a long-time civil rights activist with her own political baggage.
Smith, 54, was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her grandparents came to Portland to work in the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, and she earned a degree in communications at Oregon State University.
She was the first member of her immediate family to graduate from college, and she raised her son, Jordan, as a single parent — experiences she says shaped her politics and her focus on historically underserved populations.
Smith’s political skills and DNA formed in what her friends and former colleagues refer to as “Wyden World.”
She started working for Ron Wyden, then a new member of the U.S. House of Representative, as a receptionist. Wyden was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996, and Smith moved up too, first doing constituent work and then serving as Wyden’s Multnomah County field representative.
In that role, she managed the senator’s appropriations requests for Multnomah County, helping direct funding to the Sellwood Bridge replacement and school health projects.
Those requests — known among critics as pork barrel spending or individual earmarks — were used by senators for decades to divert federal agency spending to projects in their states.
“We individually had to go out and talk to every single person who called or sent us a letter about getting an appropriation,” Smith said. “It really informed me on how money is moved, how federal money is moved down to the state, state down to the county.”
While Smith has clashed with staff at Multnomah County and the other elected county board members, colleagues from those Wyden years remember her as easy to work with.
Al Panek, a longtime union representative, worked as Wyden’s labor liaison starting in 1997. He worked with Smith for 12 years and remembers meeting her on his first day in the office. She taught him to use a computer and put him at ease.
“She was very very helpful to me, right from the first day,” Panek said. “She wears her feelings right out front. She’s just a very sweet, intelligent person, very understanding of other people’s problems.”
Smith’s formative years in government were working for a boss whose every day was scheduled down to the minute and who relied on staff to keep him briefed and fed and where he needed to be.
“When you have somebody who’s working that hard, you do a lot of stuff for them,” said state Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, another former Wyden aide. “With Ron, he’s got calls to make, he’s got stuff to read. He’s scheduled for 14 hours a day. People drive him everywhere. You might grab him lunch.”
In 2010, Smith won an open seat on the Multnomah County commission, representing North and Northeast Portland. She was just the second African-American woman elected to the county board.
Her two terms have been marked by significant highs, in particular her work on summer jobs for students of color.
SummerWorks PDX, a paid internship and job coaching program targeting disadvantaged and diverse youth, launched as a one-year project with federal stimulus funding in 2009.
Smith represented the county on the Portland Metro Workforce Development Board, and she saw the program as a critical success at a time when the unemployment rate was particularly high for youth of color.
Andrew McGough, the executive director of the nonprofit that managed the internship program, says it was Smith who pushed the city and county to keep SummerWorks afloat after the initial federal funding ran out.
“The county supported 25 slots. We cobbled together a variety of resources. That year we served maybe 200 kids,” he said.
Smith worked each year to grow the county’s investment in SummerWorks and recruit new businesses to participate.
Today, Multnomah County invests $2.1 million annually in the program. This year, it will serve about 1,200 young people.
McGough said Smith, at her core, believes her job is to make sure that government resources support underserved communities.
“She has been incredibly consistent in pursuing an agenda and priorities that reflect that belief,” he said.
But Smith’s tenure at the county has also been marked by controversy and conflict, including a county investigation that concluded she had likely bullied her staff and had a habit of disallowed purchases on her county debit card and frequently lost receipts.
Smith does not see herself as a polarizing figure. She dismisses the investigation, and she attributes her challenges to negative press.
“I would push back on your characterization,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve been controversial.”
Embattled Second Term
In 2014, Smith was re-elected to a second term, easily defeating three challengers and avoiding a runoff.
While Smith delivered for her constituents, her history of spending and staff management raised questions within county offices.
In 2015, an analysis by Willamette Week found that Smith spent far more of her office budget on travel and contributions to nonprofits than her fellow commissioners.
That report suggested that while most of that spending didn’t violate county policies at the time, Smith had been using public resources to raise her political profile during her re-election campaign.
Then, in 2016, reporters learned that her county wages were being garnished over more than $36,000 she owed the state in taxes and late fees.
Smith said at the time that she did not in fact owe back taxes, and she attributed the problem to a title company mistakenly identifying her home as an investment property when she sold it.
Tax records she shared with OPB confirm that account: In June 2017, the state dropped its lien and acknowledged that a mistake had been made.
“IRS has reversed their initial audit in full. Therefore the Oregon Department of Revenue has also reversed our initial billing in full,” Kim Janis, a state tax official, wrote Smith in a letter she made public.
In January 2017, one of Smith’s aides made a series of explosive allegations about the working environment in her office in a letter addressed to Smith that was later forwarded to the county attorney and leaked to the press.
“Because of your history of disparaging other former staff members, I feel it is essential for my own protection to outline in writing the treatment I have been subject to and other items of concern that I have observed,” MeeSeon Kwon, a policy analyst, wrote to Smith and her chief of staff.
Kwon alleged that she had observed the potential misuse of county resources for political purposes, bullying and mistreatment of staff and that she had been pressured to falsify her timecard.
“You have yelled, including profanities, and used very disrespectful tones of voice when communicating with me and other county employees,” she wrote. “You made disparaging comments about the weight of another staff member … you inappropriately bullied me regarding my medical issues.”
A month later, a former staffer, Saba Saleem, wrote Smith her own letter of complaint. Saleem alleged that Smith made a variety of inappropriate comments to her, asking if she was pregnant, questioning her decision to study Arabic and cornering her in a county bathroom to accuse her of leaking information to the county’s communications department.
According to Saleem’s letter, Smith lashed out at her staff in particular after Willamette Week began investigating her office’s spending history.
“The investigation made it impossible to come into work without expecting to be yelled at, cursed at, being told you were incompetent, and being dehumanized,” she wrote.
Saleem also alleged that Smith had used her county purchasing card for personal items and to buy gift cards for her employees.
Smith responded by asking the county human resources department to investigate the allegations.
The Secretary of State found that Smith had violated election law on three occasions when her office staff were asked whether they wanted to volunteer at campaign events during county staff meetings.
Elections director Stephen Trout concluded that some of her county staff may have felt pressured to volunteer for the political events. Smith was fined $250 for the violation.
The county human resources investigation found that Smith had made personal purchases on her county debit card, though she has reimbursed the county. It also found that the claims of bullying were likely true, though difficult to prove.
But the investigation exposed a deep rift between Smith and her colleagues within county government.
Saying she could not trust the county attorney to fairly represent her, Smith requested and received county funds to pay for a private attorney for the duration of the investigation.
She agreed to be interviewed as part of the HR investigation — for an hour only, with her attorney present. After her interview, Smith’s attorney attempted to get the investigator to provide the names of all the other people he’d spoken with.
And though Smith herself had initially asked the county to investigate her staffers’ claims, she eventually filed a tort claim, threatening to sue the county in an effort to stop the investigation.
In the tort claim notice, Smith made her own explosive allegations: She accused County Chair Deborah Kafoury of ordering the investigation to tarnish Smith’s character, presumably in an effort to undermine a political rival.
“The county’s actions are causing Commissioner Smith to suffer severe emotional distress, anxiety, humiliation, fear and anger,” the tort claim states. “She finds it difficult to sleep at night worrying about the damage Chair Kafoury’s actions are doing to her ability to effectively carry out her duties.”
Smith also alleged that the county had a pattern of treating differently African-Americans accused of misconduct.
The county concluded its investigation in spite of Smith’s tort claim notice. Smith said she’s shifted focus and is trying to forgive Kafoury. She said she no longer intends to sue the county.
But she continues to believe the county’s human resources department lacked authority to investigate her, given her status as an elected official rather than a non-elected county employee.
“The only way that you can discipline an elected official is through a recall,” she said.
The county’s independent investigator, employment attorney Clarence Belnavis, interviewed Smith and 10 witnesses who worked in county government. He cleared Smith of some of the allegations of misconduct made by Saleem and Kwon and found that others were likely true.
Belnavis noted that many of the allegations of bullying took place in one-on-one conversations between Smith and individual staffers and, as a result, were difficult to corroborate. Three of the witnesses Belnavis interviewed said they did not hear profanity or witness abusive conduct in the office. Three other witnesses generally corroborated Kwon and Saleem’s descriptions of unprofessional and harassing conduct by Smith.
Belnavis found the bullying allegations credible, if difficult to prove.
“The allegations appear consistent and indicate that Commissioner Smith may have been harsher in her treatment of female staffers, using derogatory statements and profanity in these interactions,” he wrote.
Belnavis also noted that the county’s human resources manager said Smith had “the highest staff turnover of any commissioner and a reputation for yelling at her staff.”
At least six people have served as Smith’s chief of staff in her eight years in office. OPB reached out to five of them. Hank Stern, now an aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, described Smith as a supportive boss. Elizabeth Mazzara Myers stepped down from her position as chief to manage Smith’s city council campaign.
Her other former chiefs didn’t respond to calls or messages.
Smith denied that turnover has been a problem in her county office, and she said many people have been trained in her office and left for other good jobs.
“I have had more staff of color than any other commissioner and have brought them into local government,” she said. “My staffers, they have catapulted themselves to other positions, with other elected officials, which I think is great.”
Kwon and Saleem declined requests for comment on this story.
Kwon reached a settlement with the county over her allegations. She received six months of paid administrative leave, $23,820 for attorney fees and a letter of recommendation. Kwon worked briefly for state Sen. Rob Wagner and now works for Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz.
Three people who were not directly involved in the investigation and worked closely with Smith at Multnomah County spoke with OPB but asked not to be identified.
Two described personal experiences being yelled at by Smith. The third described periodically hearing Smith yelling at other people in her office.
Smith denied ever bullying her staff or making culturally insensitive comments. She said it wasn’t unusual to hear people raising their voices in offices at the county.
“Raising our voices is not bullying,” she said. “Giving people direction that requires them to have a high standard, and asking people to do their job, that’s not bullying. Am I a tough person? Yes.”
Her supporters suggest that her treatment of her staff was cast in a harsher light because she is an African-American woman.
“In the same way that a man will be described as bold and aggressive and a woman will be described as pushy and bitchy, you can double that with a black woman,” said Rep. Smith Warner. “People are intimidated by her.”
Historically, some of Portland’s most successful leaders have been known as tough bosses. For example, Mayor Vera Katz was beloved but also had a reputation for holding her employees to exceptionally high standards — and letting them know when she thought they’d fallen short.
The county investigation also looked into Saleem’s allegations that Smith used her county purchasing card for personal expenses.
The purchasing cards are, in effect, credit cards county staff can use for small business expenses. They’re an alternative to petty cash.
While the county finance department’s records were incomplete, Belnavis found that on at least 14 occasions, Smith used her county cards for disallowed personal expenses. The charges ranged from $478.75 spent at Safeway to a $7.25 charge at Starbucks.
The amount of questionable spending was comparatively tiny —about $2,000 in total over a period of five years, less than a fraction of one percent of Smith’s annual office budget of more than $600,000.
In each case, her office later reimbursed the county, though not always within the county’s deadline of a month.
Belnavis was particularly concerned by one aspect of the transactions: on four occasions, Smith didn’t pay the county back. Instead, her chief of staff, Jimmy Brown, wrote checks from his personal account to reimburse the county for Smith’s spending.
In one instance, Brown repaid the county for a $47.55 charge at a Washington D.C.. hotel bar after a reimbursement check Smith had written from her personal account bounced.
Smith says that check bounced because she mistakenly wrote it from an account she had closed due to theft. She says she always paid Brown back when he covered her reimbursements.
In an email, Brown told OPB he reimbursed Smith’s expenses because the commissioner was out of town.
“I wanted to make sure that Accounting staff were not put in a position of waiting until Commissioner had returned from travel to close out the entries,” he said.
Smith characterizes all of the personal charges on her county cards as normal. She says none of the expenses were “disallowed,” the term used byBelnavis in his report.
“I’ve never had any disallowed expenses. I’ve had reconciliation from trips,” she said.
In two instances, additional records provided by the county support Smith’s explanation that the charges she had to reimburse were a result of the county’s confusing travel reimbursement policies.
In 2013, Smith used her county purchasing card to withdraw cash from an ATM for travel expenses for trips to Washington D.C. and Texas.
She later had to reimburse the county, because the finance department paid her a duplicate cash advance for those same trips.
Smith said she didn’t know at the time that the finance department had changed the process for taking cash advances for travel.
The county finance department confirmed that purchase cards were used to provide cash advances for travel, that this practice changed in 2013, and that Smith may not have been briefed on the change.
Smith’s explanations for some of the other questionable charges are less convincing.
She says she does not remember why she charged $478.75 at Safeway in 2013 to her county credit card, or why the county required her to reimburse taxpayers for the payment.
In an initial interview this fall with OPB, she blamed an intern for one charge: in 2014, someone in Smith’s office used a purchase card to pay a photographer for a photo shoot related to Smith’s re-election campaign.
“An intern used our credit card to pay him,” Smith said. ‘If I had been in the office, I would have said, ‘No, no, no, don’t pay him.’”
County policy allows only permanent Multnomah County employees to use county credit cards.
Informed of that policy by OPB in a second interview, Smith changed her explanation of who had paid the photographer.
“He was actually a limited-duration employee, so he was on full-time staff. He was new. He had only been on staff for a few weeks,” she said. “His time period was like an intern, but he was put on regular payroll.”
Smith said she does not believe she should be considered personally accountable for her office’s spending.
“The chief of staff and the front desk person, those are the people who really reconcile all the bills. I don’t do that. That’s their job, to do that,” she said. “I don’t sit down and pay the bills.”
The investigation did not deter Smith’s core supporters. Prominent leaders in the African-American community publicly denounced it as “a political lynching.”
Smith has been endorsed by all four of the state’s sitting black legislators.
“Loretta has been a tireless advocate for all communities of color in Oregon, particularly for the black community,” said state Sen. Lew Frederick, who represents North Portland. “She is unparalleled in her accomplishments of increasing economic, educational and safety net opportunities to our community, and that’s why we support her.”
But her response to the county’s investigation appears to have cost her politically.
In her 2014 re-election campaign at the county, Smith was endorsed by all four of her colleagues on the county board.
None of the sitting members of the county commission have endorsed Smith in her run for Portland City Council. All four declined to comment for this story.
She does have the support of two of her former colleagues, commissioners Jules Bailey and Diane McKeel.
“Loretta has a style that sometimes people can find abrasive. But I’ve seen first hand that it gets results,” Bailey said. “And at the end of the day, in city hall, we need somebody who knows what their core priorities are and what their bottom line is and will negotiate for that.”
In 2014, she also won endorsements from U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Portland City Commissioners Nick Fish, Dan Saltzman and Amanda Fritz.
Fritz and Blumenauer have both endorsed Smith’s opponent in the city council race, Jo Ann Hardesty. Saltzman and Fish haven’t made endorsements.
This summer, a large public sector union, the SEIU local 49, endorsed her opponent.
Felisa Hagins, the political director of SEIU Local 49, says the union’s members had serious reservations about Smith. Some members work as janitors cleaning county buildings.
“Our workers know some of the staff Loretta has interacted with,” Hagins said. “That weighed heavily in their decision.”
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