Hit the Delete Button

The governor's office's explanation for a request to delete emails doesn't hold water.

SEEKING ACCESS: News media fill the lobby of the governor's office in the Oregon state Capitol on Feb. 13, the day Kitzhaber announced his resignation.

Did Gov. John Kitzhaber's office seek to destroy his personal emails stored on state computers?

That's what WW first reported Feb. 12, based on records obtained by the newspaper and 101.9 KINK/FM News 101.1 KXL radio.

That same day, state officials offered reassurances that no one was trying to destroy anything.

It's a crucial question, given that the effort to remove emails came as investigators and the news media sought information about influence-peddling and conflict-of-interest allegations that had enveloped the governor's office.

State officials claimed that Kitzhaber's personal emails were inadvertently stored on state servers. They also claimed they had only recently discovered the mistake. And, they asserted, his staff was simply trying to separate Kitzhaber's personal messages from those relating to state business.

"There was no blanket order to delete all records, and the emails are in the process of being sorted to determine which records are public records that are required to be kept," says Kitzhaber spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki.

Records show none of those official explanations is true.

Kitzhaber elected to have his personal emails stored along with his government account more than three years ago. That allowed him to manage emails from various accounts—public and private—all at once.

In August 2011, Kitzhaber's office requested that Oregon Department of Administrative Services begin archiving his personal emails on state servers, according to sources familiar with the situation. 

Records show that from that point forward, Kitzhaber routinely used his personal email accounts for public business through this month. Those emails, even if they were sent from or received by his personal email accounts, would be public records if stored on public servers.

In fact, Kitzhaber was concerned about the amount of crossover between his accounts.

"I want to make sure we are all using the official governor email whenever possible," Kitzhaber wrote in an email to his chief of staff, Mike Bonetto, on June 24, 2014. "I am getting a lot of traffic on my personal email that should be official public record."

Nobody seemed worried about Kitzhaber's personal emails until two weeks ago. On Feb. 2, WW and The Oregonian filed new records requests for Kitzhaber's emails.

Soon after, Kitzhaber general counsel Liani Reeves mentioned to other members of the governor's staff that Kitzhaber's personal emails had been inadvertently stored on a state server, according to people present. Some staffers warned Reeves at the time that those emails might be subject to Oregon's public records law.

A few days later, on Feb. 5, Jan Murdock, Kitzhaber's executive assistant, contacted the Department of Administrative Services with a request to remove emails.

A DAS staffer described Murdock's request in a Feb. 5 email. "Governor's office wants anything that is in [Kitzhaber's] email account removed from archive," wrote Tracy Osburn, a DAS support technician.

"Removing" emails would have meant deleting them—that's how DAS administrators saw it. Several state employees—apparently believing the request was inappropriate—refused to carry it out.

Murdock asked that the emails be deleted one day before the Oregon Department of Justice opened a criminal investigation into the allegations against Kitzhaber and Hayes, and long after the Oregon Government Ethics Commission had mounted an investigation.

Under Oregon law, it's a crime to improperly destroy or tamper with public records or material that might become evidence in a criminal investigation.

A day after WW reported the effort to destroy the emails, the U.S. Department of Justice swept in with a wide-ranging subpoena, including for emails that Kitzhaber's office sought to delete.

Federal officials won't say whether WW's story about the request to destroy emails triggered the subpoenas. But one state employee whose records the feds subpoenaed was Tracy Osburn—the DAS technician who had first reported receiving the order to destroy the emails.

Also in this week's paper:

"What He Left Behind": What's in the emails Kitzhaber's office tried to have destroyed.

"Relying On An Old Man's Money": After Hayes got nearly $40,000 from an octogenarian, Kitzhaber bailed her out.

"Ringing the Truth": Could Kitzhaber and Hayes benefit from spousal privilege if they married?

"Carbon Copy": A climate-change bill will test Gov. Kate Brown's independence.

WWeek 2015

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