READERS MAY HAVE noticed something curious about Willamette Week's May primary endorsement spread last week: It sat directly next to a full-page ad on behalf of publisher Richard Meeker's wife—attorney general candidate Ellen Rosenblum, whose race the paper's editor and co-owner, Mark Zusman, has declined to cover.
It was the last of three ads for Rosenblum in the paper, and even though it repeats a dubiously phrased claim about her opponent's courtroom experience, it wouldn't be worth mentioning if Rosenblum's campaign had bought the spots just like any other candidate. But that's not the case. In an eyebrow-raising revelation, state records show Willamette Week's parent company gave Rosenblum an "in-kind contribution" worth $15,680—the amount it otherwise would have charged for the ads.
That follows a flap earlier in the campaign after the Oregonian reported Zusman had sent a personal letter to a prominent union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), hoping to pitch them on his business partner's wife. And it comes on top of nearly $9,000 in total contributions from Meeker himself.
The question—raised both by the campaign for Rosenblum's opponent, former US Attorney for Oregon Dwight Holton, as well as an ethics expert contacted by the Mercury—is whether Willamette Week might have stumbled into an ethical morass by still using its pages to support Rosenblum, even if its journalists aren't writing about her.
Bill Reader, a journalism ethics professor at Ohio University, sympathized with the paper. He called the conflict of interest "beyond the point of being managed." But he also suggested the paper, by giving company money to Rosenblum, has "become an arm of the campaign" nonetheless.
"It's not what you can get away with," Reader says. "It's what can pass the smell test. This doesn't pass the smell test."
Jillian Schoene, a spokeswoman for Holton's campaign, unsurprisingly, was less charitable: "Seems like the personal interest of their publisher has been placed above the professional journalistic standards of running an independent newspaper. The same can be said of the paper's editor."
The Mercury asked Meeker directly about both the ads and the criticism they've spurred from some political observers. He was extremely upfront that "this is uncharted territory for us" and added that "I am certain this is a subject on which people can disagree."
But Meeker also defended the contribution of company money—no small sum for a weekly paper that, like many, including the Mercury, has had to endure pay cuts or layoffs in recent years. The paper's "two owners are supportive of Ellen," Meeker said, arguing it was simpler than cutting the Rosenblum campaign a direct check and then having them buy the ad space at the prime rate.
Meeker also said, repeatedly, that Holton's campaign, just like his wife's, had "equal access" and was welcome to buy ad space in the paper—somewhat skirting the distinction between taking all comers and putting his finger on the scale by contributing to one campaign but not both. Meeker commented that, given Holton's fundraising advantage, it wouldn't "unfairly unbalance the campaign. "As for the awkward placement of Rosenblum's ad, Meeker's answer was that it was merely the first full-page spot in the paper that wasn't already reserved by another client. He said, if he had his way, he'd have put the ad closer to the front of the paper—real estate that's typically the most valuable. I also asked him about Zusman's letter to SEIU, but he deferred to Zusman, who's out of the country and unavailable.
Reader, the Ohio ethics professor, suggested Meeker and Zusman should have kept appearances cleaner by giving only their personal money to Rosenblum, not WW's. He also said the ad placement was awkward. But, he said, "at least they followed the law" by reporting it. Even if it wasn't "terribly professional."
Of course, Holton's campaign may have its own issues with interesting in-kind contributions. Holton is renting headquarters downtown but has acknowledged also using space at Lane Powell, the sprawling white-collar law firm that hired him after he left the US attorney's office, to do some of his campaign work. That constitutes a gift, and it hasn't appeared on his state finance records.
Schoene said Lane Powell will tally up the times when Holton made calls or did other campaign business in its offices and send an invoice after the campaign. Meaning voters wouldn't otherwise know that Holton is taking contributions from a law firm whose clients include Wells Fargo until after they potentially cast their ballots for him.
The Mercury asked Schoene why, in the name of providing timely information to voters, Lane Powell wasn't submitting more periodic invoices that would show up in state records before election day.
"You have a choice," she said. "And this is the choice we made.... We've decided to work with Lane Powell at the end of the campaign."
Meeker, meanwhile, had something interesting to say when asked what would happen if his wife actually becomes attorney general, holding the second-most powerful elected office in the state.
The recusal by WW would end, he says: "Ellen Rosenblum is under no illusions this newspaper will spare her."