Usually, when public officials don't want to answer a reporter's questions, they respond with "no comment."

In Malheur County, however, they're trying something a little more hardcore.

The Malheur County counsel has asked Sheriff Brian Wolfe to open a criminal investigation into the actions of Malheur Enterprise reporters. Their alleged crime? Sending emails to the personal accounts of county economic development employees outside of office hours which Greg Smith, director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department, has deemed "not appropriate."

Let's be clear. That isn't a crime. That's called reporting. Journalists frequently try to contact government officials and others through official and non-official channels as they pursue leads, develop sources, gather documents and build a story. They also try to make every attempt to reach them if they are writing a story relating to the officials or their work, so that the officials have the opportunity to refute conclusions, correct information or explain their side of a story. There's nothing inappropriate and certainly nothing illegal about it.

In a call with The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, Smith acknowledged that going to the sheriff's office might not have been the right avenue. He added that journalists have every right to contact him and that he has tried to be open and responsive to public records requests and journalists' inquiries. But he said his employees have felt intimidated by the frequency of emails from the Enterprise, the exhaustiveness of their information requests and the window of time given to them before publication. He added that they believe Enterprise journalists are not disclosing personal conflicts and biases and are using their position to settle scores.

The Enterprise, meantime, has said it has used "standard and professional methods." To drive that point home, the newspaper published a column Sunday describing how the story was reported and sharing the full text of emails sent to Smith seeking responses or rebuttals.

If Smith had concerns, there are other avenues to resolve them, from writing op-eds to even filing civil lawsuits if the situation merits it. Seeking a criminal investigation is an inappropriate use of government resources and appears more of an attempt to dissuade or intimidate reporters. Especially considering that Smith, who is also the Republican representative for Heppner in the Oregon House, has been the subject of recent Malheur Enterprise stories raising questions about the work he has done in his position as the county's economic development director.

As a legislator, Smith knows that media scrutiny is a critical component of keeping government accountable. He shouldn't look to government to suppress that scrutiny.

-- The Oregonian

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