News, Oregon, politics

Kotek names retired Portland-area auditor as new secretary of state after scandal forced Fagan out

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

Gov. Tina Kotek tapped LaVonne Griffin-Valade, a longtime government auditor in the Portland area, to become Oregon’s next secretary of state, an appointment that marks the end of a tumultuous chapter for the office following the resignation of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan in early May amid a moonlighting scandal. 

Kotek’s appointment, announced Wednesday, will be effective on Friday when Griffin-Valade is sworn into office. She will serve the remainder of the term, leaving voters to pick the next secretary of state in the November 2024 election. The office, with 231 staff members, oversees elections, audits of state agencies and business filings for Oregonians. 

Deputy Secretary Cheryl Myers has run the agency since Fagan resigned. The secretary of state is the next in line to lead the state if the governor dies or resigns. Griffin-Valade, who’s 69, retired in 2014 to become a full-time writer after working as an auditor for more than 16 years. She was hired as a senior management auditor at the Multnomah County Auditor’s Office in 1998 and later became the elected Multnomah County auditor. In 2009, Griffin-Valade was elected Portland city auditor, serving one term before her retirement.

Kotek said in a statement and subsequent news conference that Griffin-Valade has the professional background and ethics to steer clear of  politics and regain the trust of Oregonians in the office. 

Kotek called her “a leader with a steady hand,” adding that she was “precisely what this role demands at this moment after the scandal in that office.” She said she expects Griffin-Valade to scrutinize what the office is doing, how it conducts business and make any needed changes.

“She will look at everything they’re doing,” Kotek said. “I will leave it to her discretion if she needs to make any (changes).” 

In the release, Griffin-Valade said she has the experience to bring back accountability and transparency to the office.

“It’s never been more important to have a leader who will focus on rebuilding the public’s trust in the Secretary of State’s Office, and that is exactly what I will aim to do every day,” she said in a statement.

As Portland auditor, Griffin-Valade oversaw divisions requiring a high level of independence and ethical judgment from managers and staff, the release said. She also worked on government auditing nationwide and in Canada as a member of an international committee. 

The work she began in Multnomah County still continues. Among her endeavors, she started a hotline to report fraud, waste and abuse in the county, Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. That hotline is still in operation.

“I’m just excited that someone who has experience leading an audit division and an elections division already is going to be in this position, and I think it will really support and improve morale among the staff there,” McGuirk said. “She just really is someone who has tons of integrity and knows how to run a really complicated office. This is a really smart appointment to help rebuild people’s trust in the Secretary of State’s Office.”

McGuirk didn’t work with Griffin-Valade but she played a role in ballot measures that affect Multnomah County government. McGuirk requested – and received – Griffin-Valade’s input and endorsement for a voter ballot measure that strengthened the office’s role and created a county ombudsperson in the auditor’s office to investigate complaints about county actions.

“Trying to maintain the independence of an audit function is a pretty typical hurdle that auditors are up against in government,” McGuirk said. 

After Griffin-Valade left government, she earned a master’s in fine arts in writing. Besides essays, she’s published a four-part series of gritty crime novels set in eastern Oregon featuring Sgt. Maggie Blackthorne of Oregon State Police as the protagonist. Griffin-Valade lives in northeast Portland, has been married 41 years and has four children and as many grandchildren.

The Oregon Public Employees Retirement System pays her a pension of $31,098 a year, according to data compiled by The Oregonian/OregonLive. As secretary of state, she’ll earn $77,000, a sum that is set in statute.

Griffin-Valade’s appointment follows the sudden downfall of a rising political star. Fagan resigned May 2, just one day after she apologized for “poor judgment” in accepting a $10,000-a-month consulting job for a cannabis chain seeking to expand. The Secretary of State’s Office was conducting an industry-related audit at the time. Fagan said she needed the side job to make ends meet. A former state legislator, she won the role in the 2020 election.

On Feb. 20, Fagan began working with Veriede Holding LLC, an affiliate of La Mota, which grows, manufactures and sells cannabis products, while her office was auditing the state’s regulation of the cannabis industry. Fagan was researching other states’ cannabis regulations.

In early February, shortly before she started working for Veriede, Fagan recused herself from the audit, which was largely finished by that time. But Fagan had communicated with La Mota’s owners about the scope of the audit, raising questions about a potential conflict of interest. 

In May, Sens. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas, and Art Robinson, R-Cave Junction, sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s office requesting an investigation after reading a Willamette Week article about the owners of La Mota who gave thousands in dollars in campaign funds to prominent politicians, including Kotek and Senate President Rob Wagner, and Fagan, all Democrats. 

Since Fagan’s resignation, several investigations have started.

Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed the Secretary of State’s Office, the Department of Administrative Services, the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and the Department of Revenue for records related to Fagan and La Mota’s owners Aaron Mitchell and Rosa Cazares.

Separately, the state Justice Department is investigating the audit, and the state ethics commission is investigating Fagan after receiving complaints.

Oregon has had five secretaries of state in the past decade and none has had a second term. Kate Brown became governor, Dennis Richardson died in office and Fagan resigned. Two appointees, Jeanne Atkins and Bev Clarno, did not run for full terms.

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