Gov. Kate Brown, While Calling For Greater Government Integrity, Is Still Targeting Whistleblowers

A continuing Oregon State Police investigation into email leaks is "chilling."

Gov. Kate Brown

Since taking office Feb. 18, Gov. Kate Brown has publicly made honest and open government a top priority. She has introduced three bills aimed at tightening Oregon's lax approach to government ethics, and she has  promised a thorough audit of how state agencies respond to requests for public records. 

Last night, Brown got a warm shout-out from MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who applauded a voter registration bill Brown introduced as secretary of state and then signed into law as governor. The new law will add 300,000 new voters to the rolls and is part of what Brown told Maddow is her approach to opening Oregon's government to citizens.

"My goal is to provide stability but also to do some housecleaning," Brown told Maddow.

In one area, however, Brown appears to be intent on encouraging the secrecy—and resistance to open government—begun under her predecessor, former Gov. John Kitzhaber: Brown has not halted an Oregon State Police investigation into the release of Kitzhaber's emails to WW in February.

At issue are emails from Kitzhaber's personal accounts that were archived on state servers beginning in 2011. On Feb. 5, Kitzhaber's assistant, Jan Murdock, asked the Department of Administrative Services to delete those emails, of which there were several thousand.

The emails were subjects of public records requests by WW and The Oregonian. Several DAS employees refused to delete the emails. 

WW published a story about the effort to destroy Kitzhaber's emails on Feb. 12; the governor announced his resignation the next day.

On Feb. 18, WW began publishing stories based on the emails Kitzhaber sought to destroy.

Kitzhaber and his attorneys have claimed the then-governor was merely seeking to remove emails of a personal nature from state servers.

But that's not true. Records show Kitzhaber sent and received thousands of emails dealing with state business using personal email accounts. That makes those emails public records—and releasing them is not a crime.

On the morning of Feb. 18, Oregon Department of Administrative Services Director Michael Jordan ordered the Oregon State Police to investigate the leak of Kitzhaber's emails. He did so without consulting Brown, who'd been sworn in less than two hours earlier.

Two weeks later, Jordan abruptly resigned, prompting Salem observers to wonder whether what many people saw as a witch hunt into state whistleblowers would end.

It has not.

Instead, Brown's administration is still using state police to identify—and potentially punish—state employes who faced great risk to themselves to give Oregonians the very thing Brown says she wants: greater government transparency.

Moreover, as The Oregonian reported last month, the unauthorized release of emails stored on state servers would be, at worst, a misdemeanor, a level of crime the Oregon State Police does not typically investigate.

The state's use of such resources in this case gives the appearance of politically motivated intimidation and the punishment of whistleblowers, rather than an attempt to further public safety.

"It's chilling for a government to conduct a criminal investigation, even if the release of emails is unauthorized," says Judson Randall of Open Oregon, a group that promotes government transparency. "Disclosing government information is not a criminal act and public employees will be less likely to engage in transparency issues if they think they might be investigated criminally for doing so." 

Kristen Grainger, Brown's spokeswoman, says the investigation is consistent with Brown's desire to restore confidence in government.

"Unauthorized disclosure of records in state custody is problematic and requires further action, particularly when those records may be evidence in connection with an ongoing federal investigation," Grainger says. "Protecting those records and ensuring they are not tampered with or destroyed is a legitimate basis for an inquiry."

WWeek 2015

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