The Whistleblower

Michael Rodgers has a secret: He's the one who leaked Gov. John Kitzhaber's emails. Here's why he did it.

n Friday, Feb. 20, Michael Rodgers looked up from his iPad to the parking lot outside his Salem office window. Three people strode toward the entrance of his building. He knew who they were, and he feared they were coming for him.

Rodgers had worked for Oregon state government for 15 years. More than 200 people reported to him. In an office of quiet, often introverted techies, he stood out, not just because he was their boss, but because of his gregarious nature. He was the guy who planned Hawaiian shirt days and had his team occasionally don tinfoil hats.

Rodgers' group supported the computer and email systems for thousands of state government employees, from the lowliest assistant in the most obscure agency, right on up to the governor.

IN RECENT WEEKS, Rodgers had been thinking a lot about the governor. John Kitzhaber had resigned in disgrace two days earlier, quitting in the wake of influence-peddling allegations involving him and first lady Cylvia Hayes.

Kitzhaber for weeks had been under pressure to resign. But Rodgers believed the final shove came when WW reported that Kitzhaber's office had tried to delete emails that could be used as evidence in a growing investigation.

Rodgers, 56, was the state official who had stopped the efforts to delete those emails. But someone in state government, still unidentified, had told WW about the attempt—and then leaked thousands of Kitzhaber's emails stored on state servers. Rodgers was responsible for the security of those emails.

Rodgers put down his iPad. He recognized the three people now striding across the office toward him as state human resources officials. "When HR shows up en masse," Rodgers says, "something is up."

The HR officials got to his door.

"Collect your personal items," one told him.

Rodgers always hung his coat on the back of his office door when he arrived in the morning, and often forgot to take it home at night. He had six coats there now, and he grabbed them all. He wasn't going to be back for a long time.

Heads popped up over cubicle walls as the officials escorted Rodgers out of the building. "It was a perp walk," he says. "It was devastating."

More than three months later, Rodgers is still on paid leave. He must stay home during work hours. "It feels like I'm in jail," he says. "I'm just missing the ankle bracelet."

This week, Rodgers decided to go public with a secret he can keep no longer: He was the person who told WW about the attempt to delete Kitzhaber's emails. And he's the one who leaked more than 6,000 of Kitzhaber's emails to WW.

Rodgers has been under separate investigations by the Oregon State Police and the Oregon Department of Justice. On May 6, a Marion County prosecutor told Rodgers' attorney that if Rodgers didn't give up his $143,000-a-year state job, he could be charged with a crime. Rodgers refused to quit.

Some people think Rodgers violated Kitzhaber's privacy and shirked his own responsibility to protect state data.

Rodgers says he was simply trying to stop public records from being destroyed. And he wanted Oregonians to know that the emails the governor's assistant sought to delete were relevant to the ongoing investigation of Kitzhaber and Hayes.

He accomplished that goal. But in the process, he's gone from being a high-ranking state official to an exiled whistle-blower.

Rodgers may be the latest casualty of the Kitzhaber scandal, an unprecedented chapter in Oregon political history that has altered much more than the lives of a four-term governor and his fiancee.

For no gain and at great personal risk, Rodgers committed a courageous act that has brought him nothing in return except mounting legal bills, potential indictment and probably the loss of his career.

He's breaking his silence now because the isolation and investigations have worn him down.

"Life has not been good for me," Rodgers says. "I can't do this any longer."

MICHAEL RODGERS had a routine: He would wake every morning at 6:15, feed his four Louisiana Catahoula Leopard dogs, and sit at the dining-room table of his west Salem home to check his state-issued iPad. He wanted to make sure the state's computer systems had operated properly overnight.

His routine was forever altered at 6:45 am on Feb. 6, when he read an email from a subordinate. Its subject line said, "Governor's email account."

Rodgers, a Democrat who twice voted for Kitzhaber, usually didn't pay much attention to politics. Yet like most Oregonians, Rodgers knew Kitzhaber was in serious political trouble, in large part because Hayes, the first lady, had accepted more than $220,000 in consulting fees from groups seeking to influence state policies.

He also knew The Oregonian had filed a public records request seeking all emails from Kitzhaber's personal accounts, which had been archived on state servers for the past three years. Rodgers' office handled these requests, and he believed that any emails stored on state servers were public records.

Rodgers opened the message, which included a string of emails that had been passed up through the chain of command in his office. The original message had been sent the day before by Tracy Osburn, a state computer tech. Osburn reported a call he'd received from Jan Murdock, the assistant to Kitzhaber.

"Governor's office wants anything that is in the email account from (or something close to that) removed from the archive," Osburn wrote.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh, fuck,'" Rodgers recalls.

Rodgers tracked down Osburn, who confirmed what was in the email. (Osburn tells WW the conversation took place as Rogers described.)

"Tracy was concerned that email deletion was not something we'd normally do," Rodgers says. "People were aware there was a lot going on with Cylvia Hayes and the governor. There were a lot of red flags."

Rodgers knew he faced a politically sensitive situation, prompting him to go the top. That meant meeting with Michael Jordan, the state's chief operating officer. Jordan answered directly to Kitzhaber.

"Mike Jordan has a rule," Rodgers says. "If there is something controversial, you don't text or call him. You go see him in person."

Rodgers arrived at Jordan's office at 8:30 am on Feb. 6, and told him Kitzhaber's office had asked to delete the emails. He told Jordan that deleting the emails might be illegal. Under Oregon law, it is a crime to knowingly destroy, conceal, remove or falsely alter a public record.

Rodgers expected that Jordan would back him up and support his conclusion.

Instead, Rodgers says Jordan grew irritated. He told Rodgers that he would walk over to the governor's office to find out what was going on. Jordan did not respond to requests for comment.

Rodgers drove back to his office at the State Data Center on Airport Road. "I was filled with anxiety that I'm going to be asked to delete the emails," Rodgers recalls. "If I'm asked to delete them, what do I do?"

Later that morning, Jordan called Rodgers and told him that Kitzhaber's top staff wanted to review the emails. He directed Rodgers to copy the emails to thumb drives and bring them to Jordan's office.

In other words, Rodgers believed, Jordan was telling him that the governor's office would decide which emails would be deleted.

Rodgers was now more worried than before. He had seen the state repeatedly fail to turn over public records in a timely or complete fashion, and he worried that Murdock's request to delete emails might still be carried out.

"I wanted to make sure that data wasn't destroyed," Rodgers says.

So he copied the emails, as Jordan asked. And then he inserted two Kingston thumb drives into his computer and made a copy of the Kitzhaber emails for himself.

"It was a hard decision," Rodgers says. "I would like to trust the people I work for to do the right thing."

It turned out he was right to be concerned.

A few hours later, Matt Shelby, Jordan's spokesman at the state Department of Administrative Services, confirmed to Rodgers that the staff in the governor's office, including Liani Reeves, the general counsel, would review the emails.

"The governor's office was going to give us their opinion as to what to delete," Shelby tells WW. "I never had clear direction from Michael Jordan or anybody else that their request was to be the final say.” Reeves declined to comment. 

At the time, Rodgers believed that despite his efforts to prevent the deletion of the emails, the governor's office would try to get its way after all.

Feb. 7, a Saturday, Rodgers plugged the thumb drives into a laptop and opened Kitzhaber’s emails.

Some were clearly personal in nature. But thousands dealt directly with state and political issues. Rodgers found emails from 2014 between Kitzhaber and political consultant Patricia McCaig in which the two discussed Cover Oregon, the failed $300 million health insurance website. Cover Oregon had backfired on Kitzhaber and put his 2014 re-election bid at risk.

Rodgers also found emails between Kitzhaber and Hayes that showed how influential the first lady was in the governor's administration—and how she hoped to benefit from her access to Kitzhaber.

Rodgers understood right away why the governor's office might seek to have emails removed from the state server: They could be damaging to Kitzhaber.

"It scared the shit out of me," Rodgers says. "I was afraid if they knew that I knew the truth, they could come after me."

Many people might have stopped there, tossed the memory sticks in a river and kept quiet. Rodgers believed he had to act.

"I needed to do something," he says, "but I didn't know what."

Rodgers didn't trust the Oregon State Police—he knew its budget was controlled by Kitzhaber and Jordan. Rodgers went online looking for help. He saw that four of the seven justices on the Oregon Supreme Court were political appointees. So were all of the members of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

"I felt I had nowhere to go," Rodgers says.

At one point, Rodgers stopped by the Oregon Department of Justice to see lawyer Lisa Umscheid, with whom he'd worked. He broached the subject with her in general terms.

"If I've got concerns about the way an important issue is being handled, but I can't go to my superiors because they are involved, what should I do?" Rodgers recalls asking.

"Mike, you need to understand that my job is to defend the state," Umscheid told him. Says Rodgers: "I took that to mean it wasn't a viable option for me to talk more with her." Umscheid declined to comment, saying any meetings she might have had with state employees are covered by attorney-client privilege. 

Rodgers felt the information he had gathered was increasingly important as Kitzhaber's behavior turned erratic.

On Tuesday, Feb. 10, amid growing rumors that he might resign, Kitzhaber summoned then-Secretary of State Kate Brown home from a trip to Washington, D.C. Brown would take over as governor if Kitzhaber resigned—and that led to more speculation that he was about to quit.

But when Brown returned to Portland, Kitzhaber met her at the airport and inexplicably asked her why she had cut her trip short, a meeting that Brown was later to characterize as "bizarre."

After his meeting at the Department of Justice, Rodgers turned to a state human resources official. He told her that he was aware that Kitzhaber's office had tried to delete emails from the state servers.

"I have nowhere to turn," Rodgers told her.

"Maybe," she said, "you should go to the media."

Rodgers didn't know any reporters, but a friend suggested he call Sheila Hamilton, a longtime television and radio journalist who hosted a morning show on 101.9 KINK-FM.

On Wednesday, Feb. 11, at about 1 pm, Rodgers called Hamilton. He was nervous and described in general terms the information he had.

Hamilton suggested Rodgers contact WW.

THE DENNY'S RESTAURANT in Wilsonville was nearly empty at 9:30 pm on Feb. 11, except for three baseball-capped young men noisily ending their evening at a nearby table.

Rodgers had called me an hour earlier and described his job and his concerns about high-level efforts to make Kitzhaber's emails stored on state servers "go away."

We'd agreed to meet that night at a spot between Portland and Salem. Rodgers walked in wearing a gray hoodie and jeans, slid into a booth and ordered coffee.

Rodgers wanted anonymity and WW's assurances that, if he gave WW the actual emails, the newspaper would not publish those that were clearly about personal matters. Rodgers then put a stack of papers on the table.

He had compiled a detailed chronology of everything that had happened since Feb. 6, the day he learned of the effort to delete Kitzhaber's emails. The stack of papers included the email in which Tracy Osburn had documented the request by Kitzhaber's assistant, Jan Murdock, to delete emails.

Rodgers said he felt conflicted. His job was to safeguard government records. He was a loyal employee, he loved his work, and yet people above him seemed willing to delete information that, in his words, "is a matter of public record—and concern."

He then slid a transparent plastic file folder across the table that had held two thumb drives—one green and one black—inside.

"These are Kitzhaber's emails," he said.

Then Rodgers left. When he drives, he usually has his car stereo blaring. "I realized that I had driven home in silence," he says. "I was thinking, 'Oh, what have I done?'"

THE NEXT MORNING, Thursday, Feb. 12, WW prepared a story about the Kitzhaber administration's request to delete the governor's emails from state servers. The plan was to get that news out first and report what was in the emails later. At KINK's studio in PacWest Center in downtown Portland, Hamilton stood by, ready to break the story on air as WW published online.

Hamilton texted Rodgers to alert him. "Keep your head down," she wrote.

The reaction was swift.  Within an hour, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, called on Kitzhaber to resign.

"The current situation has become untenable," Wheeler said, "and I cannot imagine any scenario by which things improve." Before the afternoon was over, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, both Democrats, had joined the call for Kitzhaber's resignation. 

The next day, Friday, Feb. 13, Kitzhaber announced he would resign. He had been the longest-serving governor in state history, and the first in the modern era to resign because of scandal. He had been sworn in for a fourth term barely a month earlier. "I took no joy in his resignation," Rodgers says. "I didn't feel any sense of vindication."

Rodgers barely had time to think about the governor's resignation. Only hours after Kitzhaber made his announcement, the FBI delivered a sweeping subpoena for hundreds of thousands of state records.

Based on what he'd seen with Kitzhaber's emails and the state's slow and incomplete responses to earlier records requests, Rodgers worried about document destruction.

Kitzhaber had set his departure for five days out, on Feb. 18. The delay made Rodgers suspicious. "I was concerned," he says, "that it was giving him and his staff time to clean house."

On Feb. 18, WW published stories that quoted directly from several of Kitzhaber's emails. Only hours after the stories appeared, Jordan called the Oregon State Police and ordered a criminal investigation into the leak.

At noon, Kate Brown was sworn in as Oregon's 38th governor.

The emails that Rodgers had copied for the governor's office had since been transferred to the computers of other state officials, including DAS spokesman Matt Shelby, Kitzhaber general counsel Liani Reeves, and Kitzhaber's assistant, Jan Murdock.

Despite the subpoena, Rodgers says, Shelby requested that the Kitzhaber emails be erased from his computer and those of Reeves' and Murdock's.

Rodgers told his staff not to comply. A subordinate, Marshall Wells, contacted federal prosecutors in Portland about the new request for deletion and was told any such action would constitute tampering with evidence. Wells was then told by Jordan's office not to have further contact with prosecutors.

Shelby tells WW he made the request at Jordan's direction. He says the emails were backed up elsewhere, and state officials wanted to limit access to the copies after the leak to WW.

The next day, Feb. 19, three Oregon State Police officers showed up at Rodgers' office.

"Even the plainclothes officers had their guns in plain sight," Rodgers says. "They wanted to know the whole story of what happened with the emails."

Scheduled for 40 minutes, the interview stretched to nearly three hours. One officer asked about the leak to WW.

"Do you know who released the emails?" he asked.

"I didn't want to lie to them," Rodgers says. "But I told them I had no idea."

That was on Thursday. The next morning, Feb. 20, a state police computer expert, Steve Payne, sat with Rodgers and his staff examining the state's email security.

"He said, 'This is a political investigation, not a criminal one,'" Rodgers recalls.

Later that day, human resources officials for the Department of Administrative Services escorted Rodgers from his office and put him on leave. Wells, who'd contacted federal prosecutors, was also placed on leave.

The reason the two were given for being sent home was vague, only that they would be out "pending an investigation" related to the federal subpoena.

In the three months since then, Rodgers' life has turned into Dante's nine circles of Hell.

One day he was fully engaged in his job, surrounded by people he respected. The next, he was stuck at home, isolated and under scrutiny.  Rodgers remains under investigation by the Oregon State Police and the Department of Justice.

"In the beginning, people would text me to see how I was doing," he says. "But as soon as the Oregon State Police contacted people and told them they knew they'd texted me, people went into self-preservation mode. Their goal has been to isolate me."

On May 6, Rodgers says, Marion County Deputy District Attorney Paige Clarkson offered Rodgers' criminal attorney a choice: Rodgers could resign from his job, or state prosecutors could charge him with "official misconduct"—one count for every one of the 6,000 emails state police suspected he had leaked.

Clarkson confirmed to WW the phone call took place but declined to comment.   

Rodgers refused to resign.

MICHAEL RODGERS AND JOHN KITZHABER have a lot in common. They now have more time on their hands than they'd like, and they're spending more money on lawyers than they can afford.

Kitzhaber and Hayes remain under a federal criminal investigation. Kitzhaber lost his job after he ducked questions, refused to turn over public records and his office sought to delete emails.

Rodgers also faces a criminal investigation and could lose his job—all because he released Kitzhaber's emails.

A few weeks ago, Rodgers' friends took him to Cinco de Micro, a Salem beer festival. Some of the revelers were state employees. Word soon got around that Rodgers was the one who had refused to delete Kitzhaber's emails. People slapped him on the back and shook his hand. They also gave him their beer tokens. "I had too much to drink that night," Rodgers says.

Those tokens might be all the reward he gets for risking his career—and his freedom—to make sure the governor of Oregon was held accountable.

“I’ve reflected a lot and wondered if I did the right thing,” Rodgers says. “I know I did.”  

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