Commentary

In pressing Kristof for documents and answers, Capital Chronicle was pursuing facts

Running for Oregon governor, Kristof himself made an issue of his taxes, voting record and more. Good journalistic practice was to seek documents behind the claims

January 11, 2022 5:30 am

Reporter Julia Shumway of the Oregon Capital Chronicle talks with gubernatorial candidate Nick Kristof in December 2021 at a Portland business summit. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Nick Kristof cited his taxes, voting history and business operation in staking his right to run for governor.

The appropriate next step for reporters seemed apparent: Let’s see the documents.

That would provide Oregonians direct information about matters Kristof himself was putting in the public record.

So, the Oregon Capital Chronicle asked Kristof for his documents. He didn’t provide them.

We then tried detailed questions about evidence he was citing that he was qualified to run. He didn’t answer.

The Capital Chronicle persisted to do what is expected of us ­– hold those in power accountable.

And as a leading Democratic candidate for governor, Kristof is accountable to Oregonians he wants to lead from the statehouse.

As a longtime journalist, he would recognize reporters wouldn’t – shouldn’t – take him at his word about evidence of his life in Oregon and New York. He’s one of us, so to speak, but that doesn’t give him a pass on questioning.

The lawyers and judges will settle the question of whether Kristof fulfills the constitutional mandate required of someone running for governor. They will decide whether Kristof’s sense of Oregon as home is the same as residing in the state.

We weren’t after legal analysis in our work. We were after facts. So, I want to share what steps we took to get those facts, providing a look at how journalism gets done.

On Dec. 20, Kristof filed to run for governor. The next day, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s office notified him that there was a question whether he had resided in Oregon for the required three years.

Kristof and his team had anticipated that issue. His legal team produced a memo in August, months before he joined the race, that detailed lawyerly arguments for why he was qualified.

The 15-page memo also was laced with factual declarations about Kristof. The document described when he was registered to vote and licensed to drive in Oregon. It described how he “paid property taxes every year since 1993” and “filed an Oregon tax return for 2019.” He formed an Oregon corporation that involved “hiring a staff of three people.”

Julia Shumway, our lead political reporter, on Dec. 23 requested documents that supported those statements. She asked for his driver’s licenses – in Oregon and in New York. She asked for income tax returns – redacted to protect most information but enough to show where Kristof was listing his address in recent years. She asked for key documents for Kristof Farms, such as tax returns and evidence that farmworkers were insured against on-the-job injuries.

The documents would show what addresses Kristof used at key times. It would answer whether he paid Oregon income taxes as a resident – or declared himself a nonresident under tax law.

The request didn’t seem extraordinary. Kristof’s team was citing this information to establish he was an Oregonian. We presumed that his team had already gathered the documents to prepare that legal memo in the first place.

Still, Shumway gave Kristof time to gather the material, asking it be provided by the end of the year.

Four days later, Kristof’s campaign responded. Not a single document was released. There was no direct indication whether they would be or the campaign was refusing the request.

Instead, the campaign said that “the Secretary of State’s Office is doing its administrative review of Nick Kristof’s residency status.” The implication seemed to be that since there was a review, documents supporting Kristof’s statements were off limits to us and the public.

But some of that information was contained in public records that Kristof couldn’t shield, so the Capital Chronicle sought them through routine public records requests. We obtained years of property tax statements for seven properties owned in Yamhill County by the Kristof family. We tracked down the deed for his New York home. The state Corporation Division was the source for documents about Kristof Farms.

Meanwhile, Kristof’s team on Jan. 3 responded to the state’s inquiry about his qualifications. The package, shared with the Capital Chronicle, included another legal memo, clippings of some of Kristof’s columns, and a former Supreme Court justice’s opinion.

Kristof also submitted his own sworn affidavit. He again referred to tax payments, voter registration history and business operations. But the affidavit didn’t include documentation about those matters – just a couple of blank forms from New York.

Shumway reported on the filing and then returned to work for a more detailed report. As part of that, she emailed Kristof directly, noting we hadn’t received any documents and that his latest filing raised even more issues.  She provided 21 questions that sought explanations for what he said in his affidavit and for what public records showed.

To give you a sense of the questions, here are a couple provided to Kristof:

  • During the years between leaving for college and registering to vote in New York, how many times did you vote in Oregon elections by absentee ballot?
  • According to public records, the annual property tax statements for your Yamhill County properties were mailed to your Scarsdale address through the 2020-2021 tax year. Why were tax statements being sent across the country to Scarsdale?

The Kristof campaign responded within hours but didn’t answer any questions.

“Oregon has always been Nick’s home; he had a house in New York while he worked there and elsewhere. So it should come as no surprise to see his New York address on some documents and Oregon address on others,” a campaign representative wrote.

Shumway proceeded to draft her report.

As is our practice, she sent actual excerpts of her draft to Kristof to review for accuracy.

“As we prepare to publish this article, I wanted to do one last check to ensure the story is fair and accurate. Please review each statement below for factual accuracy. If you see an error, please identify it and provide what you believe to be the correct information,” Shumway wrote.

That’s an essential step by our news team for such stories ­– to give those we write about an opportunity to verify the facts we have. This isn’t a request for more information or more explanations. We want to get the story right.

Kristof and his campaign never responded.

The story published the morning of Jan. 6. We were unaware that the secretary of state was about to announce the finding that Kristof wasn’t qualified to run for governor.

Kristof responded in a news conference later that day that he would challenge the decision. He said Fagan had applied political, not legal, factors to her decision. He talked about being an outsider trying to fend off “the political class” that is “protecting itself” from his insurgency.

Pressed then about why he hadn’t produced any documents to the state, Kristof said he hadn’t been asked. He didn’t explain why he didn’t volunteer them.

Shumway asked about the brush off of the request from the Capital Chronicle.

Kristof said he wanted to “honor” the work of the state’s review. He didn’t explain what would be the damage from releasing records that documented what he was publicly claiming in his affidavit and legal memos.

The deflection is particularly interesting given Kristof’s background. He’s been a journalist for 37 years. He’s asked others hard questions and no doubt expected answers.

But for now, at least, Kristof is asking Oregonians to trust what he tells them about his taxes and business and hiring practices.

The Capital Chronicle will keep pressing, but not because we’re looking for a fight. We’re looking for the truth.

And we have little doubt that’s what readers expect us to pursue.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.

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