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Malheur County officials ask for investigation into local paper

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The county sheriff has not yet decided whether to act on this request

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Malheur County officials have asked the Malheur County Sheriff’s Department launch an investigation into whether a local newspaper has engaged in criminal activity.

The Washington Post reported the Malheur Enterprise spent months investigating a state lawmaker’s business deals and contract work in the county — now the county wants to investigate the Enterprise.

County Counsel Stephanie Williams reportedly contacted Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe with allegations against the Enterprise over emails and calls to the city developmental officials.

Wolfe has not yet decided whether to act on this request.

The director of Malheur County Economic Development Department Greg Smith said the Enterprise was attempting to contact officials outside of office hours using their personal emails.

According to the Enterprise, Smith asked the paper to limit requests to office hours and to a single county email address. He also said that he and his staff have been subjected to emails “at all hours of the day.”

Williams reportedly asked for the sheriff’s involvement in order to determine “if there is a violation to investigate when a county employee’s phone numbers and email addresses are being used when we’ve asked someone to stop calling or communicating on county business on a personal phone or email.”

However, during a government meeting last fall Smith was the one to give what he described as his “personal” phone number to the public, saying he was available “24/7.”

The same number is also listed on various press releases from Malheur County.

The editor of the Enterprise, Les Zaitz, said the newspaper was alarmed by the possible criminal investigation, saying their news staff has “sought information from county officials concerning important public business using standard and professional methods.”

Sheriff Wolfe told an Enterprise reporter that the newspaper should examine the state crime of telephonic harassment.

The telephonic harassment law states that “a telephone caller commits the crime of telephonic harassment if the caller intentionally harasses or annoys another person” by calling a number they have been forbidden to use.”

“We are a small, independently owned news source trying to hold public officials accountable,” Zaitz said. “Rather than provide information and truth, local officials appear more interested in criminalizing a profession protected by the First Amendment.”

Zaitz is also concerned by a comment on the newspaper’s Facebook page from a man he identified as being a sheriff’s commander. The comment read in part, “One story written by the ‘victim’ on their very own pulpit and the jury is back … Seems like this paper and it’s groupies might be a bit desperate for a sexy story.”

“It was rather startling that a top-ranking official, the sheriff’s office that supposedly is assessing whether we’ve engaged in criminal conduct, has reached his own opinions about our organization,” Zaitz said.

These allegations come weeks after an Oregon judge ruled that records created by local government officials are not public and do not have to be disclosed.

KOIN 6 reached out to Sheriff Wolfe for comment Tuesday and has not heard back yet.

KOIN 6 News will continue to update this story.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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