The Smartest Guy in the Room

What does Reed College know about John Kroger that people in Oregon politics don't?

On July 1, John Richard Kroger will become the 15th president in the 101-year history of Reed College. 

He will earn $375,000, plus a housing allowance, to run what the book Colleges That Change Lives calls "the most intellectual college in the country."

For most people, let alone someone who is only 46, this would be an extraordinary achievement. 

But for Kroger, it's a consolation prize for abandoning a meteoric political career, one that many people expected to end in the governor's office or Congress, rather than in a hasty retreat to academia.

Four years ago, the former New York City federal prosecutor and award-winning law professor swept into Oregon politics like a spring thunderstorm. 

Then last October, just six weeks after filing re-election papers for a second term as Oregon's attorney general, Kroger announced he would not run because of a "significant but not life-threatening medical condition."

A tough-talking ex-Marine who'd made "transparency" his buzzword, Kroger nonetheless refused to identify his medical condition. He went dark.

His uncharacteristic silence generated anxiety among supporters and speculation among others.

On April 24, Kroger astonished observers yet again. He claimed he was not only healthy, but fit enough to take another job—the Reed presidency. He still, however, would not give Oregonians a full explanation for why he was quitting.

That announcement suggests that whatever physical ailment he might have, what he was really sick of was his job. 

By the time of his October surprise, Kroger still had supporters.

"John did a great job in the three years he was active," says Josh Marquis, Clatsop County's district attorney. "He will be seen as somebody who did a great deal to make Oregon better."

But much of Oregon's legal establishment feels differently. 

"I think John Kroger is the worst attorney general in my lifetime," says Edwin Peterson, a former chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. "And I've been practicing law for 55 years and known every AG for the past 40."

Such is the range of opinions about Kroger.

Kroger—who issued more than 400 press releases since taking office, and was always accessible to the press—declined to speak to WW for this story. "Life is too short and too precious," he wrote to WW in an email, "to rehash old political fights."

Conversations with lawyers, politicians and political observers yield a portrait of one of the most fascinating political figures Oregon has seen in years. 

Kroger was a bold change agent who couldn't change his agency. He was a brilliant prosecutor responsible for a series of high-profile screwups. A gifted politician who was unable to build alliances. A man of towering ambition who bailed out when the going got tough. A devoted student of philosophy who once prosecuted Enron executives but learned little from their hubris. 

As a manager, Kroger alienated many of the 240 lawyers at the Oregon Department of Justice. Now, he'll try to lead a college that has seven times that many smart, rebellious students and faculty. 

"John impressed us with his brilliance and clarity, advocacy for the primacy of the liberal arts education, and his commitment to the mission and vision of Reed College," Reed board chairman Roger Perlmutter said when he announced Kroger's hiring.

Reed's choice puzzles people who've closely watched Kroger. 

"He never communicated in any meaningful way why he was part of [the Department of Justice] and why we should be proud to be associated with it or him," says Marc Abrams, president of the Department of Justice lawyers union. 

"Our gain is Reed's loss."

There is one clear reason Reed would want John Kroger—even if two of the college's powerful local trustees did not.

Reed is the premier liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, an undisputed academic powerhouse. It also has a real and perceived problem with drug use by its students, as local prosecutors impressed upon current Reed President Colin Diver in 2010.

In what Diver told students was a "forceful and direct message," state and federal officials told him to "shut down illegal drug use and distribution at Reed College.” 

Kroger lacks the Ph.D. many college presidents possess, but he prosecuted high-profile federal drug cases in New York, a credential that could assuage prospective Reed parents across the country.

Reed is a national institution. Fully 85 percent of Reedies, according to college figures, come from outside the Northwest. 

So maybe it's not surprising that none of the seven trustees on the presidential search committee lives in Oregon. And it probably helped Kroger that a faculty member on the committee, humanities and German professor Jan Mieszkowski, was a close friend of his from their undergraduate days at Yale. (Reed spokesman Kevin Myers says Mieszkowski recused himself from the process after Kroger became a finalist.)

It is, however, somewhat surprising that Reed hired Kroger without the support of two influential local trustees.

Measured by the value of his publicly traded stock, Tim Boyle, the CEO of Columbia Sportswear, is the second-wealthiest man in Oregon, after Nike Chairman Phil Knight. 

Based on what he's seen of Kroger, Boyle is not a fan.

"I was surprised that an ambitious politician, whose health issues clouded his future, would be interested in the job, let alone considered seriously," Boyle says.

Boyle did not think Kroger should even continue in his current job.

"I would not have been able to support his candidacy for attorney general should he have chosen to run again," Boyle says.

Boyle says he will nonetheless continue to support Reed. 

The other local trustee who did not support Kroger's hiring, according to people familiar with the situation, was Brett Wilcox, an energy entrepreneur who made his fortune in the aluminum business. 

Wilcox led an economic advisory panel for former Gov. Ted Kulongoski and played a central role in Gov. John Kitzhaber's transition team. Wilcox declined to be interviewed, but WW has learned after Kroger was hired he chose to leave Reed's board.

Perlmutter, the board chairman, says the search committee did extensive due diligence, including satisfying themselves that Kroger's health problem—which Perlmutter would not identify—is "a non-issue."

Perlmutter says the committee found Kroger's intellect, energy and passion for liberal arts education far more compelling than criticism it may have heard. 

"You'll find a lot of different perspectives on a public figure," says Perlmutter, recently retired as executive vice president for Amgen, a biopharmaceutical company. "Especially one who worked in politics."

On a recent sunny Saturday, Kroger, sporting a Boston Red Sox cap, patrolled the soccer sidelines at North Portland's Delta Park, linesman's flag in hand.

He looked robust as he helped officiate the game. Whatever illness he had seemed in check.

Kroger has always been vigorous. He arrived in Portland in 2000, having ridden a bike all the way from Brooklyn, and has run the Hood to Coast Relay seven times. At 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, he's the anti-Chris Christie.

So when Kroger issued his cryptic October press release citing a "significant but not life-threatening medical condition," political observers were left wondering: Was it a wasting illness exacerbated by stress, such as multiple sclerosis? Some Department of Justice insiders, noting Kroger seemed disengaged well before the announcement, wondered if he was suffering from depression.

In his 2008 memoir, Convictions: A Prosecutor's Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves, Kroger discusses his battle with alcoholism. Some people now wondered if he had fallen off the wagon.

Kroger's secret remains closely guarded. But the best information available from people familiar with Kroger's condition points to digestive-tract issues that required surgery.

A review of Kroger's calendar for the weeks after he announced he was ill show a far less active attorney general than from his early years, when he regularly roamed the state and the nation.

In some respects, Kroger had a successful three years as attorney general.

He ran for the office in 2008 as a change agent. Once elected, he was aggressive, pursuing public corruption cases, even against sheriffs and district attorneys who were among his strongest supporters. 

He paid more attention to consumer fraud and mortgage abuses and brought far more focus to environmental enforcement than his predecessors.

Kroger remains a hero to people fed up with the status quo.

"He is exceptionally bright, intelligent and motivated. He had a lot of qualities I hoped Oregon was more ready for," says Mark Riskedahl, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center at Lewis & Clark Law School.

“It felt like he ran into so many situations where there was a group of individuals resistant to the change he wanted to bring.” 

But others say Kroger's approach was scattershot; his techniques more flamboyant than effective; and his management skills amateurish.

"He took an agency that was the best law firm in the state and ruined it," says Jack Roberts, a former Oregon labor commissioner.

Kroger started strongly, but by the middle of his second year as AG, it appeared that neither he nor anyone else at the Department of Justice was having much fun.

In April 2010, his environmental counsel, Brent Foster, resigned after he misrepresented his role in a Hood River County water-quality case.

In June 2011, Kroger canned his hand-picked criminal justice chief, Sean Riddell, after Riddell deleted hundreds of emails relating to a controversial investigation. 

On Oct. 17, 2011, one day before he announced his decision not to run again, Kroger issued a humiliating mea culpa: a triple murderer had been allowed to go free because his agency had lost key evidence, which it later found.

"Mishandling of evidence is completely unacceptable," Kroger said in a statement. “As attorney general, I take full responsibility.” 

In addition to those and other high-profile problems, Kroger faced difficulty managing the operations of his agency, whose primary operations involve mundane tasks such as offering legal counsel to state agencies and chasing deadbeat dads. 

The week before Christmas in 2010, Kroger blasted the work ethic of his staff lawyers.

"Words cannot express how utterly disappointed I am," he wrote in a Dec. 17, 2010, email to his management team. "The sheer number of attorneys who are significantly behind in their billing—prior to December holidays—is stunning to me."

He meant that Department of Justice lawyers, who charge their time to state agencies as if they were a private law firm, were not billing enough hours. That email quickly circulated among the rank-and-file lawyers and their support staffs.

Abrams says Kroger regarded career DOJ lawyers with disdain.

"John talked about meeting with the union monthly when he got elected," Abrams says. "But he canceled the first two scheduled meetings and shows up 20 minutes late the third time. And never met with us again."

The irony? Kroger won election with enormous public-employee contributions—35 percent of the $1 million he spent winning election in 2008. His opponent, former state Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego), backed public-employee pension reforms that caused labor to punish him.

Kroger also had a tough time forming relationships with other elected officials and lawmakers.

A few, such as state Sen. Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin), a fellow ex-Marine, found Kroger refreshing.

"He has been an activist attorney general," Devlin says. "Some of us believe that is the way that office should be run. I regret he's leaving."

And Kroger did grease the wheels of political alliances by giving money, donating $120,000 to other candidates in his first three years in office. (Over the same time, by contrast, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler gave just $7,970.)

But from the day Kroger took office, two developments would color his relationship with many lawmakers. 

His vocal opposition to proposed liquefied natural gas projects angered Republicans. 

And many Democrats did not like the way public-employee unions used Kroger as a tool to batter their former colleague, Macpherson. 

Unlike the three elected AGs who preceded Kroger—Hardy Myers, Kulongoski and Dave Frohnmayer—he never served in the Legislature and, therefore, lacked political relationships and an understanding of how Salem works.

In 2011, after six meetings around the state, Kroger took a major government-transparency initiative to the Legislature. It went nowhere. 

Lawmakers say Kroger failed to do the necessary spadework inside the Capitol to pass major legislation. 

"My experience with that office is that the attorney general is like the managing director of a law firm," says state Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton). "It's a managerial position, not a prosecutorial position where you crack down on terrorists or drug kingpins. Kroger just seemed a little miscast."

In August 2010, Kroger opened a criminal investigation into whether Department of Energy director Mark Long had steered a $60,000 contract to Cylvia Hayes, then-candidate and now-Gov. John Kitzhaber's companion.

Kroger's criminal chief, Riddell, subpoenaed Hayes' bank records, while Long and three subordinates were placed on administrative suspension for 10 months. 

Although documents later showed that Long did appear to try to steer the contract, by the end of the initial investigation, then-Gov. Kulongoski had so little trust in Kroger that Kulongoski ordered his own independent investigation. 

Kroger's bigger problem was that Long's last name was gold in Salem. His father, Stan, was deputy attorney general in the 1980s and later ran SAIF Corporation, the state-owned workers' compensation insurer. 

Stan Long's close allies, former Attorney General and University of Oregon President Frohnmayer and his law partner, Bill Gary, both of whom work for the powerful Eugene law firm that bears Stan Long's name (Harrang Long Gary Rudnick), represented Mark Long. 

In court, Long's lawyers acknowledged the case was "personal."

Frohnmayer and Gary told friends they did not like what Kroger had done to the Department of Justice. And Kroger had earlier embarrassed Frohnmayer when he blasted the University of Oregon's handling of former football coach and athletic director Mike Bellotti's contract. Kroger ousted U of O's counsel, whose husband, a top DOJ lawyer, then resigned in anger. 

Although the Department of Justice decided it would not charge Mark Long, Long's lawyers in 2010 filed a tort claim notice with the state announcing plans to sue over the ODOE investigation. They also took the unusual step of filing a bar complaint last year against Riddell and also sued the DOJ for stonewalling on public records.

The tort claim notice and the bar complaints are still pending. In April, a Marion County judge in Long's public-records case said he will award substantial attorney fees to Long's lawyers.

Even before that cost to taxpayers—likely to be six figures—is added in, the total cost to the state for the ODOE investigation and its messy aftermath is already well over $1 million. 

In Kroger's memoir, he says academia is where he is most at home.

"I love teaching," Kroger wrote of his time as a law professor at Lewis & Clark College from 2002 to 2007. "These years have been, without question, the happiest of my life."

But being a college president is more complicated than teaching. 

Reed College's academic position is strong. It has produced 31 Rhodes scholars in the past century; a higher percentage of its students earn Ph.D.s than all but three U.S. universities; and figures show it continues to attract top-flight students and faculty. 

But the heroin-overdose deaths of two students in recent years created a public-relations disaster. Applications have declined about 12 percent since the high-water mark in 2008, while they have continued to rise at peer institutions. 

"The president must lead the painstaking effort, locally and nationally, to alter the prevailing narrative," wrote Reed's executive-search firm, describing Kroger's new job.

Kroger's law-enforcement background may help with parents, but trustees also want him to make the college an integral part of Portland—to build more "local connective tissue," the search firm called it. A recent study commissioned by the board found Reed might as well be in Iowa as far as locals are concerned.

Kroger will need cooperation from powerful Portlanders to make Reed more a part of the city. And while he may have charmed out-of-state trustees, he's a marked man here.

"When asked [by the search committee], I could not confirm his connection to the business community in the area was healthy," Boyle, a board trustee, tells WW. 

"John Kroger is a rare individual," says Marquis, the Clatsop County district attorney. “But he incurred the wrath of some very important people in this state.” 

Losing Friends

John Kroger slowed his pace dramatically after announcing in October he would not run for re-election as attorney general. But Kroger's go-it-alone approach to dealing with the Legislature did not change.

One of the untold stories of the first-ever February legislative session illustrates Kroger's propensity for charging into action without consulting allies.

When lawmakers convened, they faced a $112 million budget deficit. And Kroger's office had just gotten a $56 million windfall, from a tobacco lawsuit. 

That windfall was earmarked for the Crime Victims' Compensation Program, which Kroger oversees. Steve Doell, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Crime Victims United, knew most of the windfall would go to the general fund, but asked lawmakers to allow victims access to a substantial amount of the money, which is supposed to go for counseling, medical payments, burial costs and other victims' expenses.

But Kroger wrote to legislative leaders, surrendering to them nearly all of the money without a fight.

"Kroger has a crime victims' task force that meets quarterly," Doell says. "But he never consulted us. He just gave up the money."

The outcome? Crime victims got none of the $56 million, and Kroger alienated many staunch allies.

"I called John several times to ask him why he didn't fight harder for us," Doell says. "But he never returned my calls."

A Texan No More

A novelist would struggle to invent a better backstory for a politician than John Kroger's. When he was 17, he writes in his memoir, his father threw him out of the family's Houston home, so he joined the Marines. 

While serving, Kroger won admission to Yale and graduated in four years with bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy. He then worked on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and later for now-U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y). 

Kroger never stays one place long. He left politics for Harvard Law School, then was an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. But after five years of prosecuting murderers and drug dealers, he biked solo across America and fell in love with Portland.

Here, he won tenure at Lewis & Clark College, where students three times presented him with the law school's top teaching award. 

In 2008, he cycled back into politics, beating three-term incumbent state Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego) 56 percent to 44 percent.

Although his political career has not gone as planned, Kroger has found happiness in other parts of his life. After taking office, he married a Portland State University dean, Michele Toppe, and friends say he is devoted to her adolescent son.