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Potter says FBI tried to spy on City Hall

ANNA GRIFFIN / The Oregonian | May 25 2006

In the latest and perhaps oddest milepost in Portland's strained relationship with the federal government, Mayor Tom Potter is accusing the FBI of trying to spy on City Hall.

In an open letter to Portlanders on Wednesday, Potter reported that a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent approached a city employee earlier this month seeking information about City Council members and city government.

"In the absence of any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, I believe the FBI's recent actions smack of 'Big Brother,' " Potter wrote. "Spying on local government without justification or cause is not acceptable to me. I hope it is not acceptable to you, either."

Federal officials confirmed that an agent spoke to a midlevel employee from the city attorney's office, hoping that person would serve as a source inside City Hall. But Daniel Nielsen, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge for Portland, had a different take on the encounter's significance.

"We're supposed to talk to people, to develop sources, to develop relationships. It's not only common, it's expected. We can't do our jobs without the public," he said. " . . . The employee isn't the point here. The point is that (the mayor) doesn't like anybody daring to talk to somebody in City Hall without his approval."

FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Pritchett approached the city employee, who neither the mayor nor federal officials identified, on May 11. The agent and the employee work out at the same downtown gym and had crossed paths at a Starbucks, Nielsen said. The agent's supervisors did not know he planned to approach the city employee directly.

The conversation lasted no more than five minutes: Pritchett introduced himself, offered his badge and business card, and explained that although he typically focused on national security and terrorism, public corruption and white-collar crime were also Justice Department priorities.

Encounter reported

Pritchett hoped, Nielsen says, that the woman would help teach him more about City Hall, how contracts are awarded and how other decisions get made. Potter says the agent specifically asked whether the woman knew members of the City Council and was willing to pass along information "relating to people who work for city government."

The employee demurred and asked whether she could report the exchange to her supervisor. The agent agreed.

"This approach was probably more direct than anybody would have liked, but as soon as we realized the person was uncomfortable, we backed away," Nielsen said. "We didn't try to hide anything from anyone."

The employee immediately reported the encounter to her boss, City Attorney Linda Meng. Meng called the U.S. Attorney's office, and a prosecutor told her that "the event did not sound like the way the FBI would approach someone to become an informant," according to a May 15 letter Potter sent the FBI.

Meng also called Robert Jordan, the FBI special agent in charge for Portland. He asked whether the agent might have been hitting on the city worker, according to Potter's letter.

Soon, Meng notified the mayor, a retired Portland Police chief. Since then, the mayor has talked several times with the FBI and U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut.

He's been assured, he said Wednesday, that federal investigators have no evidence to suggest criminal conduct in City Hall and that there are no investigations into city government beyond the continuing inquiry into the Portland Police Bureau's failure to crack down on the sale of stolen goods at secondhand stores. The mayor has asked for an internal affairs investigation into the agent's conduct, and FBI officials have forwarded his request to their superiors in Washington, D.C.

Last week, Potter asked Portland police to search his office for bugs. The result was inconclusive, he said.

Without concrete reason to investigate, Potter says, there's no reason for the federal government to try to develop sources inside City Hall. In his letter, and at a Wednesday news conference, he noted that the FBI's approach to a city employee didn't occur in a vacuum: Last year, The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency eavesdropped without warrants on overseas telephone calls made by Americans and involving potential terrorism suspects. Earlier this month, USA Today reported that the NSA had obtained phone records from millions of U.S. residents and businesses in anti-terrorism efforts.

"There are things going on in our country, in terms of collecting information on citizens here in the United States, that I think should be a concern to every citizen," Potter said as three stern-faced City Council members stood behind him. "I believe those are very important issues that we should be discussing first in this city and, I hope, around our country. Is this the right thing to do? Do we want the federal government to be spying on groups, peoples or governments where there is no clear criminal connection?"

Broader debate

Potter said he decided to go public because he hoped to prompt a broader debate. "Believe it or not, I don't go out of my way to pick fights with the federal government," he said.

Nielsen said he learned of the letter 10 minutes before it was released on the mayor's Web site.

Portland's shaky relations with the federal government date back decades. The city hosted some of the nation's largest and loudest peace rallies during the Vietnam War. The first President George Bush dubbed the city "Little Beirut" because of the vehemence of protests he encountered in Portland.

A year ago, Potter and the City Council voted to pull Portland officers out of the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force. The mayor pushed for the pullout because he did not think had enough oversight over the investigative work Portland officers were being asked to conduct.

Police in Oregon are forbidden from investigating people strictly because of their political, social or religious affiliations. That state law stemmed from complaints about the Portland Police Bureau's "Red Squad," which through its decades-long history tracked anti-war protesters, perceived radicals and union organizers even when there was no ready evidence of criminal activity.

Since the City Council vote, the mayor and federal officials have strained to repair their relationship and present a unified crime-fighting face to the public. This will likely challenge those efforts.

"It's true that federal agents, not just from the FBI, are encouraged to develop sources. But most of the time they've already received some kind of specific tip or the business or institution is one that would inevitably be of interest," said John Kroger, a former federal prosecutor and assistant law professor at Lewis & Clark College.

"I've never heard of the FBI trying to open up a source in a state or local government without having a reason to suspect there's been wrongdoing. From an intergovernmental relations point of view, it's disastrous. The whole thing is bizarre."

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