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Oregon Lawmakers Grill State Energy Department's Leader

M.O. Stevens

Oregon lawmakers continued to debate the future of the state's Department of Energy on Monday, when a special legislative panel grilled the leader of that agency against the backdrop of a potential criminal investigation.

The joint House and Senate  Legislative Committee on Department of Energy Oversight has been meeting since January to review the Department of Energy's programs. Legislative leaders have made it clear that the agency's very existence is up for debate. 

The department has come under scrutiny for legislatively-created tax credit programs that some lawmakers now describe as far too generous. Some agency employees have received subpoenas to testify as part of an investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice.

Energy Department chief Michael Kaplan told lawmakers that the DOJ doesn't want him to say anything publicly about the investigation.

"I'd be happy to return once that's all concluded and discuss it in-depth at that point, but at this point I've been asked not to say anything," said Kaplan, who has been with the agency since 2013 and was appointed director in 2014 by then-Governor JohnKitzhaber.

Among the most controversial tax credits the agency administered was the Business Energy Tax Credit, or BETC. Oregon lawmakers dramatically expanded the program in 2007 as part of an effort to make the state more inviting to renewable energy producers. The agency issued more than 10,000 BETC credits totaling more than $1 billion.

Kaplan said that expansion, which happened prior to his arrival at the agency, was about more than promoting green energy. "I do think the program, it's pretty clear, became an economic development program as opposed to strictly an energy one," he said.C

The committee's chair, Democratic Senator Lee Beyer, pressed Kaplan.

"To be very candid—you weren't there—but the pressure was on the department was to approve everything," Beyer said.

Kaplan concurred. "There was certainly pressure for the program to perform. Whether or not they responded to that pressure at the time appropriately is the question that I wrestle with as I review the program," he said.

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.