The continuing saga of the Oregon Department of Justice's aborted investigation into whether state Department of Energy staffers wrongfully steered a contract to a company run by Gov. John Kitzhaber's companion, Cylvia Hayes, has taken another turn.
Sean Riddell, the former top DOJ criminal lawyer who led the investigation, was demoted in June. The official reasons given by Attorney General John Kroger were that Riddell deleted sensitive emails and oversaw several high-profile cases that drew public criticism—chiefly from The Oregonian.
But the latest twist in the Energy Department case shows that Kroger's office is nevertheless launching a vigorous defense of Riddell's conduct while he was investigating whether state employees broke the law securing Hayes' firm a $60,000 subcontract in 2010.
In a 10-page letter to the Oregon State Bar obtained by WW, two of Kroger's top deputies argue that a bar complaint filed against Riddell should be dismissed. Deputy Attorney General Mary Williams and Kroger's chief ethics lawyer, Carolyn Alexander, say Riddell's conduct during the probe "does not raise a substantial question as to his honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer."
The bar complaint was brought by former Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer and his former second-in-command at DOJ, Bill Gary. They're counsel for Mark Long, who was interim director at the Energy Department and became the target of Riddell's investigation.
(Frohnmayer and Gary are with the Eugene law firm Harrang Long Gary Rudnick. Mark Long's father is former Deputy Attorney General Stan Long, a retired shareholder in the firm.)
Mark Long has spent his entire career as a state bureaucrat. Kroger's office and an independent investigator, retired Judge Frank Yraguen, both recommended firing Long and three other state employees for their roles in steering the contract to Hayes' firm. The state later decided to re-instate all four employees.
In their complaint, Frohnmayer and Gary accuse Riddell of violating three professional ethics rules: lying, acting with no purpose but to delay and embarrass, and engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Drawing from interview transcripts, emails, independent witness accounts and previous court rulings, Williams and Alexander argue that Riddell's alleged actions either didn't occur at all, were honest and ethical in the full context of the events, or did not break the rules as they've been interpreted by a judge.
For a taste of the DOJ's arguments, consider how Williams and Alexander counter one complaint in particular.
The two lawyers blast the allegation that Riddell pounded the table and threatened Energy Department employee Shelli Honeywell with jail time if she didn't cooperate. In their bar complaint, Frohnmayer and Gary cite an account of that alleged incident as reported in The Oregonian. The daily, citing unnamed sources, said Riddell made the threat during a break in a DOJ interview when the recorder was turned off.
"It would be possible to simply discount complainants' allegation as based on anonymous hearsay several times removed, which is insufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that misconduct may have occurred" the DOJ lawyers write.
"But AAG Riddell's response to this allegation is much more straightforward—the alleged conduct simply did not occur. During the break in quesion, AAG Riddell left the room with Special Agent Carson and did not confer with Ms. Honeywell at all, much less threaten her with jail or 'pound the table,' " they continue, also citing Carson's statements.
"To be sure, the audio recording of the interview reveals that AAG Riddell's tone and manner were neither threatening nor intimidating," they conclude. "Absent this pivotal allegation, the remaining material quoted from the Honeywell interview consists of nothing more than hard questioning, pressing her on the central issue in the investigation—whether [Hayes' company] received preferential treatment in the contracting process."