Saturday, February 14, 2015

John Kitzhaber's e-mail

It's been quite a week in re: gubernatorial e-mail.

Yesterday, Oregon's governor, John Kitzhaber, announced that he would resign from office. Last October, an Oregon newspaper reported that the governor's fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, had served as an unpaid energy and economic policymaker at the same time as she was running a private green-energy consulting business. In November, the Government Ethics Commission opened an investigation into Kitzhaber and Hayes. Last week, the state's attorney general announced that a criminal investigation was underway.

Earlier this week, the Willamette Week, the Portland alternative paper that broke the news regarding  Hayes' potential conflicts of interest, reported that a Kitzhaber staffer had requested that the state Department of Administrative Services delete all e-mails from Kitzhaber's personal e-mail accounts that were stored on departmental servers. Kitzhaber's camp maintained that the request covered personal messages that had mistakenly been auto-forwarded to state servers and would not result in the destruction of public records. However, Oregon law specifies that personal e-mail messages that discuss government business are considered public records, and Department of Administrative Services staff were keenly aware that multiple media organizations had filed freedom of information requests that included Kitzhaber's and Hayes's e-mail. They sent the administration's request and their concerns about it up the department's chain of command and the department's director decided that the e-mail should not be deleted.

A few hours after Governor Kitzhaber resigned, U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall revealed that a federal grand jury investigation was underway and issued a sweeping subpoena seeking e-mail, memoranda, and other records that documenting Kitzhaber's environmental and economic policy initiatives, and Hayes' state government work, consulting business and clients, personal and corporate tax returns, and use of state credit cards. The subpoena covers eleven state government agencies and includes records that the state's Justice Department and Government Ethics Commission created or collected during the course of their investigations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which never publicly comments upon investigations in progress, also seems to have taken an interest in Hayes's affairs.

What a mess. I imagine that Salem, Oregon is currently experiencing the sort of surreal standstill that Albany, New York experienced in March 2008, but things are going to start moving again, and very quickly. Eleven state agencies will have to devote a lot of time and effort to responding to the federal subpoena and a host of freedom of information requests. The State Archives must scramble to document the administration of a governor who was re-elected a few months ago, who left office with little advance notice, and whose records are of abiding interest to the feds. Moreover, it must do so as it loses the head of its parent agency: when Kitzhaber's resignation takes effect next Wednesday, Secretary of State Kate Brown will become the state's next governor. However, given the clear-eyed, resolute manner in which the Department of Administrative Services responded to the Kitzhaber administration's e-mail deletion request, the Oregon State Archives' recent history of innovation and effectiveness, and Oregon's tradition of (relatively) clean governance, I suspect that these challenges will be met head-on.

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