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At a time when the state’s environmental regulators are facing accusations of cozy relationships with the industries they’re supposed to police, the case of former Air Quality Administrator Andrew Ginsburg deserves some attention.

After all, there’s not much cozier than a corporate lawyer’s winter vacation cabin.

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The Mercury has learned that as Ginsburg was paid to manage Oregon’s air toxics regulations—a job he held until three years ago—he boasted of staying with local attorney J. Mark Morford at Morford's cabin. A partner at the law firm Stoel Rives, Morford is often hired to represent companies in their dealings with environmental regulators.

Ginsburg's relationship with the attorney raises questions at a time the adequacy of DEQ’s air quality enforcement is under intense scrutiny. Following findings of alarming levels of cadmium and arsenic near Portland glass factories—first reported by the Mercury—Gov. Kate Brown, Mayor Charlie Hales, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, and a host of other officials have taken the agency to task, demanding action.

Throughout, there’s been a persistent gripe from clean-air advocates that DEQ is too friendly with the industries it regulates.

“Andy Ginsburg and I have both a personal friendship and a professional relationship, and we have always kept the two separate,” Morford told the Mercury in response to an email asking specifically about the cabin stay. “I have the highest respect for his integrity, and I am confident that our interactions have involved no impropriety.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Asked if Ginsburg accepting Morford's hospitality represents a conflict of interest, Nick Bouwes—who had a 20-year career with the US Environmental Protection Agency, primarily at its Washington headquarters—said, “Jesus, yes! … That seems an incredible conflict of interest. For [Ginsburg], that's an incredible lack of judgment on his part.”

“You can't do it,” added Bouwes, who said he’d hesitate to accept even a latte in his position at the EPA. “Appearance is everything.”

As a federal official, here’s the ethics code Bouwes would have had to abide: “An employee shall not … solicit or accept any gift or other item of monetary value from any person or entity … conducting activities regulated by the employee’s agency, or whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee’s duties.”

Meanwhile, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission states that “a gift is something of economic value that is offered to [a] public official … without cost." The value of any gifts cannot exceed $50 in a given year "if the source of the gift has a legislative or administrative interest in decisions or votes the public official makes" in his official capacity.

The DEQ hasn’t answered inquiries about whether Ginsburg’s stay with Morford violated agency protocols.

Reached on his cell phone, Ginsburg hung up upon being questioned about the cabin stay, saying he was driving. The next day in an email, he reiterated that he'd hung up because he was driving, but, again, would not address the issue of accepting Morford's hospitality.

Told of the Mercury's impending story and offered the opportunity, neither man denied that Ginsburg had stayed at Morford's cabin.

A profile of Morford on his law firm’s website claims an intimacy with the state’s air regulations. A curriculum vitae of sorts boasts that the lawyer “authored many parts of the Oregon air quality rules." What's more, Morford says he "Represented Associated Oregon Industries in the development of the Oregon Cleanup Law and authored key parts of the Oregon statue and subsequent revisions." He also claims to have "Authored Oregon's brownfield statute," referring to rules for cleaning up properties badly polluted by industry.

Ex-EPA manager Bouwes, who serves on the board of clean-air advocates Neighbors for Clean Air (but knew nothing of Morford’s hospitality until the Mercury informed him) was even more offended by Morford's online boasts than the cabin issue. “If that guy's writing that and he represents industry—that's the same bullshit we have in Congress where the rules and regulations are issued verbatim by super PACs and think tanks.

“Seeing that is so infuriating. DEQ should be authoring their own stuff.”

Ginsburg has since left DEQ and is currently Division Administrator of the Oregon Department of Energy's Energy Planning and Innovation division. A profile of Ginsburg provided by Cascade Sierra Solution, a defunct nonprofit for which he was a voting board member, states that one of his responsibilities at DEQ was, “development of the Title V permitting and hazardous air pollutant programs, as well as oversight and coordination of air quality permitting and compliance assurance programs. In earlier positions at ODEQ, Andy authored air quality attainment and maintenance plans, and developed a variety of air quality protection programs."

The claim about Morford hosting Ginsburg was made initially by Neighbors for Clean Air president Mary Peveto. She says that Ginsburg, whom she knew from her work with the Portland Air Toxics Solutions (PATS) Advisory Committee, told her about staying at Morford's place in a casual hallway conversation at an environmental conference in 2011 or 2012.

Both Morford and Peveto spoke on a panel about “good neighbor agreements” hammered out between industry and community groups. Afterwards, out in the hallway, Ginsburg approached and told her she should scold Morford for the environmentally dubious practice of burning plastic in his fireplace at his winter cabin. Peveto asked Ginsburg how he knew that, and he replied that he had stayed there.

Morford corroborated the story of Ginsburg chastising him, saying it was for burning a plastic sandwich bag.

Asked if she'd mentioned this to anyone, Peveto said she'd told Aubrey Baldwin, a fellow PATS advisory committee member. The Mercury called Baldwin within seconds of ending the call with Peveto and asked if she knew anything about “a regulator” being hosted at “a winter cabin.” With no further prompting, Baldwin said, yes, it involved Ginsburg and Morford. She had heard mention of it four or five years ago, and it had stayed with her, though she no longer remembered who had told her.

“It's par for the course,” Baldwin said.

Ginsburg’s willingness to accept hospitality apparently didn’t extend in all directions. Peveto says that on another occasion, she ran into Ginsburg while waiting in line to get coffee and offered to buy him a cup. He declined, saying it wouldn't be proper. Peveto said, “He goes and stays at Morford's cabin, but he won't let me buy him a two-dollar cup of coffee.”

Mark Riskedahl, executive director of the Portland-based Northwest Environmental Defense Center, says the cabin stay is further proof of what he termed, “the concept of regulatory captivity—the notion that the regulator is too cozy with industry. The Oregon air program, other than maybe with coal mining in West Virginia or oil in North Dakota ... has the greatest customer service mentality towards industry.”

The closeness of Ginsburg—for years, the frontline manager of Oregon's clean air program—and Morford is significant in light of Stoel Rives’ work. The law firm is a key resource for corporate Oregon's response to environmental issues, including, the firm says, water and air quality, contaminated sites, environmental crimes, and corporate compliance.

Morford has served on two DEQ committees: its Hazardous Air Pollutant Advisory Committee and its Hazardous Air Pollutant Consensus Group. He is also a past chairman of the Associated Oregon Industries Air Quality Subcommittee.

Daniel Forbes is the author of Derail this Train Wreck. He lives in Portland, and can be reached at ddanforbes@aol.com.

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