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Official Misconduct

Pete Springer/OPB

Last Friday, Umatilla County District Attorney Dean Gushwa was arrested and booked at his own county’s jail. The arrest was based on five charges of official misconduct, alleging he used his office to obtain sex and tried to cover it up. Gushwa’s arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday. He is expected to plead not guilty, and has vowed to sue the Oregon Department of Justice in federal court for violating the arrest process.

Official misconduct is a Class A misdemeanor in Oregon, the same class of crime that shoplifting items valued between $100 and $1000 falls under.  There currently is no felony official misconduct crime in Oregon, but the Department of Justice hopes to change that. Attorney General John Kroger is drafting a bill to change official misconduct to a felony, and plans to introduce it to the legislature early next year. Proponents of the legal change say that prosecutors need more leverage in official misconduct cases than what misdemeanors provide.

In Pendleton, the Umatilla County seat, reporting on the Gushwa story has brought its share of challenges. Pendleton is a city of about 17,000. For local reporters, a small population can be both a help and a hindrance to accurate reporting, especially in crime stories.  On one hand, gaining access to story sources is easier for many reporters in small towns than in large cities. At the East Oregonian, reporter Phil Wright says it is not unusual to see his sources at the local gym or grocery store. On the other hand, gossip and misinformation spread rapidly, and when it comes to readers commenting about unresolved crime cases on a newspaper’s website, journalists find themselves facing new editorial challenges.

How tough do you think official misconduct law should be? How do digital media and interactive platforms, like comment threads on websites, change the way news organizations engage with the public? How can web comments from the public be harmful or beneficial to crime cases? Have you ever made an online comment about a crime story?



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