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State Fair Director continues to conceal records over controversy of a now-defunct horse auction whose auctioneer is wanted fugitive for horse theft

Equestrian Media Group's editor filed a lawsuit over unconstitutional media policy and allegations the Oregon State Fair Council continues to violate public meetings law

Former OSFC Chair and State Rep. Vicki Berger (left) and Oregon State Fair Director Kim Grewe-Powell (right) during an October 26th meeting of the Oregon State Fair Council. (Photo Credit – Equestrian Media Group)

Salem, Ore. – Nearly six months after Equestrian Media Group submitted public records requests, the Oregon State Fair Council and its director have yet to provide the requested records, which seek to reveal the director’s role following the publishing of stories involving a controversial and now-defunct horse auction company.

Increased attention also came following a story first reported by Willamette Week titled: “The Oregon State Fair Tried to Silence an Investigative Reporter. It’s Failing.”

The issues came to a head in September 2023 when Equestrian Media Group revealed that PNW Horse Sales was concealing and misrepresenting ownership and management information, as numerous equestrian proponents had alleged for months prior. Those proponents included self-described victims of fraud at the hands of the company’s involved horse traders.

The allegations among equestrian circles included misrepresentation and conflicts of interest, as the individuals staffing and operating the company were the very horse traders consigning horses for auction. The company also faced allegations of illegal child labor, and it never obtained workers’ compensation coverage.

That also included the revelation that the company’s auctioneer was a wanted fugitive in Louisana for multiple causes involving horse theft. According to a Louisana livestock investigator, the same man was also suspected of being the subject of a Texas Rangers’ investigation after originally fleeing Louisana around 2018.

An Oregon horse trainer tied to the company, Geneva Boston, was also receiving national attention after a viral video emerged showing her repeatedly whipping a horse– including in the face.

The incident later resulted in the State Fair Director Kim Grewe-Powell threatening to call the governor and the Oregon State Police on this reporter and an Equestrian Media Group cameraman– claiming she could not be filmed or recorded without her permission, despite Grewe-Powell having approached us at the NPRA Finals event on September 23rd.

Grewe-Powell had repeatedly maintained that the public body was “private” and that she was not a public official.

During a September 9th incident in which Equestrian Media Group was trespassed from publically accessible areas of the fairgrounds not leased by PNW Horse Sales, an Oregon State Trooper also claimed that the OSFC was a private corporation and had unrestricted rights to trespass those it wanted to.

Grewe-Powell also claimed in the recorded interview that the incident did not result in trespass or threat of arrest, despite video clearly disputing that claim.

The agency’s failures related to public records and retaliation have led to an increased focus by Equestrian Media Group on the public bodies’ conduct. This included coverage of the agency’s public meetings and efforts to institute an unconstitutional media policy, which Director Kim-Grewe-Powell claimed was in response to the incident.

The policy went as far as requiring news media organizations and journalists to obtain “accreditation” and that the OSFC and staff had the right to correct reporting they believed to be inaccurate. Typically such policies are internal procedures that provide public officials guidance on how to facilitate increased access for news media representatives.

The media policy was motioned for adoption by the agency’s former chair, Vicki Berger, who stepped down in January. Berger, a former Oregon State House representative, continues to serve as a member of the governor-appointed council.

The handling and implementation of the media and a public records policy also resulted in Equestrian Media Group submitting two formal grievances as part of a new Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC) law.

That policy resulted in this reporter filing a lawsuit and application for an injunction in Marion County Circuit Court, a story first reported by Willamette Week.

A Senior Assistant Attorney General with the Oregon DOJ retained by the OSFC and Grewe-Powell promptly claimed the issue was “moot” and that the OSFC had withdrawn the policy.

That claim only fueled ongoing questions and other allegations made in the legal complaint concerning more violations of the Oregon Public Meetings Law (OPML).

The reply to the response filed by the Oregon DOJ attorney questioned how the OSFC could have withdrawn the policy as claimed when no notice of any public meeting or executive session had been made as required under the meetings law.

The complaint also mentioned how Grewe-Powell and State Fair staff put the policy in effect as early as October 25th, sending it out to all of their regular event lessors before it was even brought before the council.

Grewe-Powell and staffers also attempted to stop Equestrian Media Group from filming upon arrival at the October 26th public meeting– claiming we had to comply with the posted media policy that was on a sign-in table.

When asked for clarification, as the policy was listed as being discussed and possibly adopted by the council, Grewe-Powell claimed the policy didn’t need the council’s approval.

That claim was caught on camera by Equestrian Media Group’s cameraman, who started recording even before the meeting started after staff members were attempting to prevent our recording of the public meeting.

The legal complaint against the OSFC and Grewe-Powell also details a law that requires that matters of public policy be approved and adopted by the council.

ORS 565.470 reads that: “The council shall determine and approve policies and procedures to further the mission and purposes of the council and shall provide oversight and guidance to the state fair director and employees of the council.”

The policy was not adopted despite a motion– instead being tabled to seek input from professional news media organizations, which never happened, according to omissions in OSFC’s own meeting minutes.

The lawsuit also addresses allegations of violations of the OPML and breaches by Grewe-Powell of laws concerning financial reporting requirements she’s responsible for. Those issues only began in December, the next public meeting after Equestrian Media Group began attending and recording the body’s public meetings in October 2023.

Equestrian Media Group alleged in a public records petition with the Marion County District Attorney’s Office that the Oregon State Fair Council and one of its attorneys, Elliott Field of Garrett Hemann Robertson P.C., of intentionally causing repeated “frustration” and delay that violated timelines and notice requirements related to public records requests.

Part of the allegations of intentional frustration included repeated failures to provide records in their normal electronic format, including “.eml” email formats. Instead, records were often provided by printing and simply copying into PDF files, including phone log records, which could have been provided in electronic spreadsheets as the agency had done earlier in 2023 when seeking records concerning PNW Horse Sales.

The production method also allowed the OSFC to prevent connecting which emails the file attachments were connected to, including which users and when they were sent or received.

Oregon’s records law generally requires public bodies to provide data in an electronic medium when available. Follow-up requests for the data in electronic forms have been repeatedly ignored by Field, resulting in an ongoing request for facilitated dispute resolution from the Oregon Public Records Advocate.

Late last month, Field eventually provided some of the requested phone log records for Director Powell, but the records were only for February 2024, which was not even part of the timeline that had been ordered.

Equestrian Media Group also alleged to the Oregon Public Records Advocate that the OSFC continuely delayed producing public records for months and failed to provide updates concerning those requests.

Field and the OSFC have responded in reasonable timeframes when providing records specifically focused on PNW Horse Sales and not their own internal affairs.

Field and the OSFC have continued to be cagey about phone records requested from Grewe-Powell’s official and personal phones, although they eventually admitted in the course of a petition process with the district attorney that Grewe-Powell did, in fact, use a personal phone in the course of official business while simultaneously claiming that Grewe-Powell and other officials spent over ten hours attempting to get AT&T to produce records.

Field claimed on behalf of Grewe-Powell that AT&T would not produce the records, which this publication alleged as a misleading claim supported only by a short transcript of an online chat between Grewe-Powell and AT&T officials. Equestrian Media Group pointed out that it appeared the AT&T support agent only meant the records could not be provided “here” via the online chat system while having provided instructions to Grewe-Powell on how to access those records.

Despite that interaction in early December of 2023, which was the last effort made to obtain the records at the time, Field and the OSFC did not provide any updates until further pushback by this reporter over a month later.

Around the same time, in early December, Field finally provided phone records for the agency’s operations supervisor, Michael Legoretta, but made unnecessary redactions not covered by exemptions under the public records law.

Equestrian Media Group promptly pointed out that the redactions were made in white, which made it difficult to notice that there were redactions at all. Field later provided the records again without the redactions.

Records thus far already reveal a pattern of State Fair officials using personal devices when communicating with other staff using official devices. Other logs showed that Legoretta also forwarded media content via text, including content sent on September 9th during this publication altercation with OSFC staff and PNW Horse Sales, to his personal phone that is not issued by the agency.

The matter now raises questions concerning the OSFC’s compliance with public records retention laws. Such requirements and the use of personal devices received intense scrutiny after the scandal involving former Gov. John Kitzhaber and his girlfriend, Cylvia Hayes.

The issue also resulted in legal action against the Oregonian stemming from investigative reporting by seasoned reporter Nick Budnick. The action was Hayes’ effort to block an order from the Oregon DOJ requiring the release of public records from Hayes’ personal email and devices.

Hayes was ultimately ordered by a court to release many of the records being sought by the Oregonian.

Since the filing of the lawsuit against the OSFC and Grewe-Powell, the OSFC has also appeared to expand on its efforts to avoid public transparency. The OSFC, in accordance with the required practice under the meetings law and its own standard practice, would release a meeting notice and agenda for public meetings on its website.

Despite a meeting set for two days from now, the OSFC has yet to publish any agenda that details the subject matters to be discussed during the meeting, as required. The OSFC would normally publish its agenda the week before the meeting.

The OSFC has also failed to publish the minutes of its January public meeting and the special meeting on February 23rd that it held to correct inaccurate meeting minutes and properly adopt the policy. Only the agenda packets were available for the last two meetings.

According to the Oregon Public Meetings Law, the agency must produce these meeting minutes, even if in draft form, and post them online for public review. The OSFC previously provided draft meeting minutes on its websites, at least until increased scrutiny and news media attention in recent months.

This publication also called into question the last-minute notice, which was provided by Field, of the OSFC’s special meeting. An email was sent to this reporter only 5 hours prior to the meeting. The meeting also didn’t state the meeting was not in person, resulting in our cameraman being unable to access the meeting in person at the fairgrounds.

The notices indicated the meeting was in person and on Zoom.

Despite the meeting only being available by Zoom, Grewe-Powell and two other unknown officials who were not identified in the video were together at an undisclosed location believed to be at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.

The OSFC’s next meeting is set for March 21st at 1:30 pm in Columbia Hall at the Oregon State Fairgrounds. It is open to the public. Remote attendance information has yet to be provided as it is typically included in the agenda packet for the meeting.

Grewe-Powell, Berger, and the OSFC as a body has ignored numerous requests for comment when informed of pending publication.

If you want to support our efforts surrounding public records issues, you can donate to our Public Records & Legal Fund by clicking here. We appreciate your help as we continue to provide our publication at no cost behind any paywalls. You can make a general donation by clicking here instead.

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