Oregon’s deputy secretary of state has a choice to make.

Richard Vial, a former Republican state representative, was hired in April as the No. 2 official under Secretary of State Bev Clarno. Vial also happens to be a land-use attorney, which is where the choice comes in.

The Oregonian reported last week that Vial has been moonlighting since starting his state job, representing two separate clients appealing land-use decisions in Washington County. On Vial’s time sheet for May 16, when he appeared in two hearings for two-and-a-half hours in Hillsboro, he reported having worked a full eight hours.

The newspaper obtained the time sheet through a public records request — a clear demonstration of the value of the state’s public records law.

Vial is paid $172,000 a year as deputy secretary of state. He declined to say how much time he his spending on his law practice, or what steps he has taken to address the conflict of interest that may result. He did reject the suggestion that he was collecting double pay for the time he spent representing clients, because he is not paid hourly.

Maybe he did put eight hours in addition to the land-use hearings — and the travel time between Salem and Hillsboro. But his work calendar — also obtained by The Oregonian through a public records request — shows no meetings or other official business scheduled on Thursdays and Fridays on many work weeks (May 16 was a Thursday).

“I’m paid as an employee who is basically working 24-7,” he told the newspaper.

We’d be more likely to buy that defense if he showed up for a land-use hearing at 3 a.m.

The potential conflict of interest is clear, considering that the two cases in question are now before the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. As deputy secretary of state, Vial supervises employees who may audit that state board. Whether that has happened is immaterial; the fact that it could happen ought to be enough to prevent Vial from representing clients before LUBA while serving in his state position.

Ethics is about more than just avoiding blatant corruption. The mere appearance of a conflict of interest damages public confidence in government, which is at a particularly low ebb these days.

Vial has not asked for an advice letter from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission — a customary step in cases like this. He should do that.

If the commission says his actions present a conflict, he should stop. If doesn’t want to stop, he should choose between his state position and his private law practice. Even if the commission says the land-use work is not a conflict, he should choose one or the other to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.

If he insists on continuing to moonlight, the least he should do is take vacation time.

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