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October 19th, 2011 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

The Puzzle At Justice

John Kroger, Oregon’s most ambitious politician, won’t run for re-election due to an illness he won’t disclose.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN KROGER
IMAGE: cameronbrowne.com

Nearly three years into his term, Kroger has indeed shaken things up, although not always with a positive result. He told the Statesman Journal editorial board he considered his biggest accomplishments the consumer protection actions he’s taken against more than 100 companies, his efforts to combat drug traffickers, and cracking down on child porn and Internet crimes against children.

“I’m saddened by John’s departure from public service,” says Dwight Holton, the former interim U.S. attorney for Oregon and close friend of Kroger’s. “He’s been innovative, creative and effective.” 

Kroger has nabbed some misbehaving public officials, chasing the sheriffs of Marion and Jefferson counties from office; pushing a Marion County judge from the bench and knocking prosecutors in Lincoln and Umatilla counties from their posts.

But his performance in higher-profile cases left observers wondering if Kroger was too political. 

The first major case his office handled—the 2009 investigation of Portland Mayor Sam Adams’ relationship with a teenaged boy—dragged on for months. In the end, Kroger declined to prosecute Adams, even though the investigation found evidence the mayor tried to tamper with a witness and lied during the investigation.

Last summer, Kroger’s office investigated allegations that Oregon Department of Energy employees steered a contract to Cylvia Hayes, companion of Gov. John Kitzhaber. The case brought no charges but plenty of embarrassment to Kroger. His chief prosecutor, Sean Riddell, now faces a bar complaint that he misled witnesses. Kroger later demoted Riddell for deleting key emails in the case.

Kroger’s actions also raised questions about his own judgment. He met personally with Kitzhaber to brief him on the still-confidential case and to offer political advice on how Hayes should handle the situation—all while keeping then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski in the dark.

On Monday, Kroger acknowledged a major screw-up. In 2009, the justice department and local prosecutors agreed to dismiss the case against Philip Scott Cannon, who had earlier been convicted of three 1998 murders in Polk County. Cannon won a new trial, but prosecutors claimed they couldn’t find key evidence, which led to the dismissal. Recently, four boxes of records prosecutors had thought were destroyed turned up in storage at the justice department.

“Mishandling of evidence is completely unacceptable,” Kroger said Monday. “As attorney general, I take full responsibility.”

While Kroger’s announcement seems to end a promising career, it creates some oxygen for potential rivals such as state Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Kate Brown.

There is also the more immediate question of who will seek to replace Kroger. Although the job provides more visibility and power than any in the state except governor, it pays just $77,200, paltry for lawyers.

The GOP has searched unsuccessfully to find a challenger to Kroger (they failed to field one in 2008). And no Democrat wanted to challenge him.

But on Tuesday, the first name in circulation to replace Kroger was his friend, Dwight Holton.

Holton served as interim U.S. attorney for more than a year until presidential appointee Amanda Marshall was sworn in Oct. 7, raising that office’s profile. Holton’s close relationship with Kroger may be a mixed blessing. They worked together on the Clinton-Gore campaigns and in the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn. 

Reached at the Dallas airport, Holton declined to say whether he will enter the state AG’s race. 

Macpherson, Kroger’s primary opponent in 2008, says he is considering running. Another name in play is Keith Dubanevich, Kroger’s chief of staff.

As potential successors jockey for support, there will be pressure on Kroger to provide more information about his health.

Critics such as former Labor Commissioner Jack Roberts, who as an Oregonian op-ed writer has dogged Kroger’s every move, says Kroger should give the public “enough information to reassure us that he can do his job.”

“I think when you serve in public office,” Roberts says, “you give up some of the rights to privacy.” 

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