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February 2nd, 2011 NIGEL JAQUISS | Politics
 

John Q. Public

Records issues put spotlight on Kroger.

John KrogerJohn Kroger. - IMAGE: cameronbrowne.com

Attorney General John Kroger is pushing the most ambitious rewrite of Oregon’s Public Records Law in three decades.

But one aspect of his legislation may get him crosswise with Treasurer Ted Wheeler, a fellow Democrat and political rival.

In the legislative session that began in earnest this week, Kroger introduced Senate Bill 41. The measure aims to produce public records more quickly, more cheaply and with fewer exemptions. Since the original public records law in 1973, special interests have increased the number of exemptions more than sevenfold—from 55 to more than 400. 

Kroger’s proposed change that could cause a political dust-up is bill language aimed at prying open the details of contracts the state treasury signs with private equity investment firms. 

In the wake of a mini-scandal over state investment officers’ travel expenses, Kroger wants Oregon’s Treasury Department to disclose “investment-related records of treasurer and [Oregon Investment Council]” because they should not be “exempt insofar as they contain information about any benefit received by a state employee or state agency.”

That proposal puts Wheeler—Kroger’s potential rival in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary—in an interesting bind. Wheeler says the state’s investment agreements may contain proprietary information and that disclosing their details would take away Oregon’s information edge in those deals.

But Wheeler is in a box. If he opposes Kroger’s proposals, he hands his potential future gubernatorial rival an issue by appearing to oppose transparency. If he goes along with Kroger, he may be surrendering valuable information. 

For now, Wheeler is taking a positive approach toward the proposed guidelines drafted for his agency.

“We haven’t seen the final language yet,” says Wheeler’s spokesman, James Sinks. “But we are fully supportive of the attorney general’s efforts.”

Others are less supportive of Kroger’s current approach to public records, but in a separate context—the long-running battle over the Department of Justice investigation into contracting practices at the Oregon Department of Energy. That probe took a new turn last week.

On Jan. 26, the same day The Oregonian published a front-page story about the role of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s longtime companion, Cylvia Hayes, in an Oregon Department of Energy contract, state officials demanded the return of nine discs filled with investigative material from attorneys representing four ODOE employees who remain on administrative leave related to the investigation.

On Jan. 26, DOJ attorney Donna Bennett wrote to ODOE  employees’ attorneys, requesting they return the discs and “destroy any electronic or hard copies of those discs that have been made.”

“It appears that the discs may contain information that should not have been released,” Bennett explained.

But Bill Gary and Dave Frohnmayer, ODOE director Mark Long’s former attorneys, blasted DOJ’s handling of the records by Kroger’s department. 

“While we are sensitive to the interests of the many people and businesses whose rights have been violated by the attorney general’s unlawful disclosure of confidential information, the responsibility for those violations rests entirely with the attorney general,” Gary and Frohmayer wrote Jan. 28.

  Translation: The Oregonian has some or all of the records the AG still has not made public, and at least some of the lawyers who have them are refusing to give them back. 

Kroger spokesman Tony Green says regarding the Treasury issue that Kroger’s only interest is to increase transparency. And as for the ODOE files, Green says, “We are currently working to ensure that sensitive information is not disclosed publicly.” 

 
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