- Alex Despain
Fluoride's resounding defeat in Portland is nearly a month behind us, but controversy around the most-contentious vote in
Portland's recent memory lingers—sort of.
The Oregon Health Authority has found in an internal investigation [PDF] one of its employees committed a "minor violation" of the state's acceptable use policy in the run-up to the vote, when she used her state e-mail account to arrange to give out pro-fluoride signs.
But employee Laurie Johnson, a program coordinator in the Oral Health Unit, didn't ultimately distribute the signs, the report found, and pulled back when she realized the communication "may be crossing boundaries."
"Based on the Agency's review and consultation with (the Oregon Department of Justice), we have determined the email exchange was a minor violation of the Acceptable Use Policy," the report states. The cited policy prohibits state employees from using state computers and accounts for political purposes.
The violation was the only finding of wrong-doing in an investigation that—at the urging of fluoride opponents and spurred by news reports—sought to determine whether there was credibility to concerns about the OHA's treatment of the fluoride debate. Specifically, anti-fluoride political action committee Clean Water Portland suggested OHA workers purposefully delayed a report showing the dental health of children had improved, and had inappropriate communications with pro-fluoride campaigners.
OHA Director Bruce Goldberg initiated the investigation in May.
But in a review of hundreds of emails and interviews with top health officials, investigators turned up little evidence of foul play. In the case of the 2012 Oregon Smile Survey—a periodic assessment of schoolchildren's dental health that turned into a political weapon in recent months—questions turned to whether the OHA had inappropriately delayed release of data that showed decreased cavities. The findings were anticipated early this year, but the OHA didn't release them until late April.
According to the investigation, that was actually a shorter timeline than previous Smile Surveys had operated under. The report quotes outgoing Public Health Director Mel Kohn, who said the last survey, in 2007, took seven months to release after all data were collected. For 2012's survey, that would have meant a June release date.
Opponents also took issue with e-mails indicating OHA officials met with pro-fluoride lobbyists at Upstream Public Health prior to the report's release, and the complaint of staffer Shanie Mason she was getting "a ton of pressure from advocates like Upstream Public Health that have very specific ideas about how we should present out information."
But Mason added: "Unfortunately for them I'm committed to maintaining the integrity of our work."
None of this rose to the level of malfeasance, according to investigator Angela Young, who wrote: "It is not uncommon for state government officials to meet with special interest groups; therefore it is not extraordinary that Public Health leadership met with Upstream Public Health. In my interviews with both Dr. Kohn and Ms. Mason they indicated Upstream Public Health was the only special interest group that had requested to meet with them regarding the survey."
Which leaves the matter of Johnson. According to the report, the woman was contacted by a dental hygienist she worked with, and asked whether she could provide pro-fluoride yard signs.
According to a report on the exchange, Johnson wrote: "I have 3 of them in my car. Could you distribute them if I deliver them to you?"
Her interlocutor replied: "I could have my husband swing by today or tomorrow after he gets off work at 3:45 p.m. ... if that would work."
But the exchange never took place. According to the OHA report, Johnson realized the conversation could be inappropriate, and texted from her personal cell phone: "I am unable to do fluoridation stuff from work. Hence this text. I don't have the signs close by today. I can drop them off on your porch next weekend."
Investigators concluded Johnson's communication violated the acceptable use policy, but not Oregon statutes or the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits public employees from exerting political influence or running for office.
The fallout from the investigation? Not much:
The Agency believes that confirming the expectations to the employee is appropriate, reaffirming what she already acknowledged in our meeting. The Agency is also committed to creating and implementing a communication strategy to ensure education for all employees, including prohibited activities when policy activity is occurring.
There's no sign the Oregon DOJ has begun an investigation, which fluoride opponents had called for. A call to Clean Water Portland leader Kim Kaminski hasn't been returned.