The sheriff of a remote Oregon county closed an investigation Wednesday that began when local officials accused newspaper reporters of harassment for emailing them after office hours, reports Courthouse News Service. Sheriff Brian Wolfe, of rural Malheur County, told the Associated Press the Malheur Enterprise reporters had broken no laws by asking the county’s director for economic development to comment on claims from owners of a car wash who said the county promised a hefty tax break and failed to deliver. Malheur County, in the southeast corner of the state, has a 27.4 percent poverty rate – the highest of any of Oregon’s 36 counties. New employers are big news, so when an Idaho company announced plans to build a car wash in the area, the Malheur Enterprise paid attention.
Enterprise reporter Pat Caldwell discovered that the company, Bluebird Express Car Wash, didn’t qualify for a five-year tax exemption totaling nearly $335,000 in tax breaks promised by the county. So Caldwell emailed and called county officials, including Greg Smith, Malheur County’s director for economic development. But Smith, also a Republican in the state House of Representatives, refused to respond. “It’s pretty fundamental blocking and tackling of journalism,” said Editor Les Zaitz. “Ask questions, try to verify information and give the subject of your reporting a chance to respond to make sure they aren’t blindsided.” Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment until after the paper published its Aug. 14 story. Then he issued a statement that claimed that the paper had harassed him for six months with “emails at all hours of the day.” Malheur County Counsel Stephanie Williams asked Sheriff Wolfe to investigate whether the reporters’ use of standard methods to gather information from elected officials constituted harassment.