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Analysis: Sheriff investigates small newspaper after story on tax breaks Boise-area car wash company

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Over the past few years, I’ve focused my professional life on two interests: supporting local journalism, and development news in the greater Boise area.

Those two things collided in the strangest way in Malheur County in the past week.

Les Zaitz has been on a tear since buying the small Malheur Enterprise. He beefed up the staff, snagged awards – and even got sued by the State of Oregon (he won).

Last week, the Enterprise produced a long investigative piece on… a car wash.

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In a nutshell, Boise-based Bluebird Car Wash decided to build a new location in Ontario on the promise of tax incentives valued at about $300,000. The project would add ten to 15 jobs to Ontario.

But the breaks never materialized. And the economic development folks wouldn’t talk about it. They didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

But after the story ran, the economic development folks issued a news release of sorts. They claimed the Enterprise staff subjected them to “hostile” emails, “endless” phone calls and “unwelcome” office visits. The unsigned release said the Enterprise had a “vendetta” against them.

It’s good watchdog coverage, particularly for a city Ontario’s size – and something the Enterprise does on a regular basis.

[New car wash company comes to town, familiar old one returns]

Don’t call me. I won’t call you.

But what happened next just makes you scratch your head.

Malheur County asked the sheriff to investigate the Enterprise.

For what?

“Telephonic harassment.”

Apparently, Oregon law says it’s illegal to “harass… or annoy another person” by calling a phone number someone has been forbidden to use. The law dates to 1987 – and it is classified as a Class B misdemeanor.

Greg Smith. By Phillipscheuers – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53758326

Greg Smith, the director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department who refused to speak to the Enterprise about its Bluebird story is upset about… getting emails.

“It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” Smith wrote the Enterprise.

Last week, Zaitz produced the emails he and reporter Pat Caldwell sent. A review of timestamps shows they were sent at 2:46pm on a Thursday, 9:59am on a Friday, 8:50am on a Saturday and 8:42am on a Monday.

Smith is also a state legislator in Oregon.

The Enterprise noted that Smith gave his personal cell phone out and told the audience he was available “24/7.” Unless you’re a reporter working on a story you don’t like?

The sheriff’s office confirmed to the Enterprise that it was looking into the emails and phone calls. Zaitz defended his paper in clear and sensible terms.

“Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise,” Zaitz said.

Getting comment for a story is a pretty basic part of the journalistic process and attempt to be fair. Any journalist will use any available phone or email address to ensure they go the lengths necessary to get comment – particularly for a thorny story.

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