What was Fagan thinking?

May 3, 2023 5:45 am
Shemia Fagan with vote tattoo

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan is stepping down after apologizing and ending a contract with a cannabis company. (Courtesy of the Secretary of State’s office)

There’s something called the “any damn fool” rule in politics. It’s an unwritten rule because, well, any damn fool should know better, no matter what the law says or how the rules can be interpreted to justify one’s actions.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan learned this rule the hard way, when she took on a lucrative moonlighting contract for a controversial campaign donor operating in a controversial industry overseen by a controversial state agency, all under the microscope of an audit being conducted by her office. 

Apparently, Fagan had enough doubts about the legality of what she was contemplating that she made several asking-for-a-friend-type phone calls to state ethics staffers in an attempt to find a way through the legal issues involved in her decision. But she apparently never asked or even thought about the “any damn fool” rule, which is not about legal interpretations but the norms generally recognized and enforced by public opinion. 

Once her contract became known, it didn’t take long for the public to deliver its verdict. After a brief moment of asking “what was Fagan thinking?” it became only too clear what she was thinking. She knew she was doing something improper, if not technically illegal – and certainly not something suitable for timely public disclosure. 

Fagan then moved quickly through the stages of scandal, from rationalization to apology to resignation, all within the space of a week. But Fagan’s resignation will not limit the fallout from her behavior. Controversies of this kind have far-reaching impacts on policy issues and on the political dynamics within the party in power.  

On the policy front, the Fagan fiasco has again stoked demands for tightening Oregon’s ethics rules, overhauling its minimalist campaign finance laws, rethinking Oregon’s use of the Secretary of State position as its de facto lieutenant governor and dealing, one way or another, with the consequences of low pay for Oregon’s elected officials.

More immediately, I expect that Fagan’s budget requests for her office, including a heavy-handed public lobbying effort she launched for upgrading her Corporations Division, will not fare well in this Legislature. Nor does this help the already embattled Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, now under scrutiny for how it handles both of its named responsibilities. 

On the political front, the party in power invariably pays a price for scandals like this, no matter how their leaders handle it. To their credit, Gov. Tina Kotek and the Legislature’s Democratic leaders were quick to express their dismay and disapproval of Fagan’s behavior. But, for some time to come, Democrats will have to deal with a billboard-sized poster person, arms crossed to show off her VOTE tattoo, as the image of one-party rule in Salem.

Also, Fagan was elected thanks to the intervention of public employee unions in the Democratic Party primary for Secretary of State and, before then, in her ousting of an incumbent Democratic state senator. So, how the unions who were heavily invested in her career respond to the aftermath of Fagan’s resignation will be worth watching. 

Finally, there are the practical, ethical and all-too-human personal lessons to be learned from yet another cautionary tale of power and politics. 

When Fagan called her counterpart in Connecticut “just to ask who, like, would be somebody for a cannabis company to talk to if they want to get the lay of the land,” as she stated in her press conference on Monday, that was Secretary of State Fagan calling, not Citizen Fagan or Cannabis Consultant Fagan. There was no way to disassociate herself from her position and the influence it projected in those other states where she was doing business for her client.

So much for not profiting from one’s official position. Fagan provided more than research for her client, she provided the clout and connections that come with the position she holds, as any damn fool could recognize.

Our ethics laws provide the don’ts, but the do’s are inherent in the values those laws convey – that when you work in state or local government, your work is public, and when you hold an elected office, it is often impossible to disassociate your contacts and conversations from your position.

So, to go back to the first question, what was Fagan thinking?

She had to know this would look bad, given how she went about trying to keep it secret. But she certainly knew that she would have to disclose her moonlighting contract on her next statement of economic interest to be filed with the Ethics Commission less than one year from now. It was going to come out eventually, so she must have thought she could get away with it.

This is a lesson in how power blinds one to the ordinary norms and consequences of one’s actions. It’s not any one party’s problem. We’ve seen too many examples of this in all political parties. It’s a human problem. The Greeks had a word for it – hubris.


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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.