E. Oregon newspaper battles state agency for public records

Oregon newspaper battles state for records.

VALE, Ore. -- A story making waves across the country, sparking outrage over a lack of government transparency: a mom-and-pop newspaper in Eastern Oregon dug into the history of a Nampa man after he was accused of killing two people in Malheur County in January.

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What the Malheur Enterprise discovered is troubling: They found 49-year-old Anthony Montwheeler had just been released from a state psychiatric hospital in Oregon after feigning insanity for decades to avoid prison for a kidnapping charge in 1996.

When the paper requested more public records on why Montwheeler was set free to walk the streets of Oregon and Idaho, the state Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB) denied them access. Thus, the paper appealed to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who ordered the agency to turn over the records sought by the Malheur Enterprise.

That's when the small town weekly newspaper in Vale was slapped with a lawsuit.

That brings us to Tuesday's events: after pressure from Oregon Governor Kate Brown, the PSRB says they released a majority of the requested documents, except for medical records, to the Malheur Enterprise. Gov. Brown asked the PSRB to release those public records, as well as drop its lawsuit against the small newspaper.

The Board agreed to that ask after denying the paper a plethora of critical records earlier this year, citing privacy laws.

This story is multi-faceted - it represents the need for information to be made public when it affects the safety of the community, as well as the need for journalists to dig deep and hold the government accountable.

No longer deemed mentally ill by the State of Oregon, Montwheeler was released from the Oregon State Hospital, despite the fact that PSRB officials were told he was a threat. According to records obtained by the Malheur Enterprise, a state psychologist noted that Montwheeler's risk of violence would be high once released and he would likely target his intimate partner or a family member, which he allegedly did.

Today, Montwheeler is sitting in the Malheur County Jail, accused of kidnapping and killing his third ex-wife, and killing a Vale man in a head-on collision while fleeing police.

It was after that episode that the Malheur Enterprise pursued information on Montwheeler's past.

"We came across the fact that this man had been under jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board," Malheur Enterprise Publisher and Editor, Les Zaitz, told KTVB.

Zaitz says they found records from Dec. 7, 2016. showing the board gathered to consider a hospital staff recommendation to release Montwheeler. The paper requested public records, and the board eventually released their orders regarding Montwheeler and the audio recording of the December hearing.

"It was quite haunting, it really was," Zaitz added. "The audio was really the clincher."

Montwheeler admitted to officials he ran a medical con for 20 years, insisting to a string of state psychiatrists and psychologists that he was mentally ill.

MORE: Malheur County murder suspect feigned insanity for 20 years to avoid prison

"That testimony alone was startling. Then you have a state psychiatrist saying, I've done a complete exam of this man's files back to 1997, there's no evidence of mental illness," Zaitz said.

Documents show Montwheeler was found guilty but insane all those years ago and was able to avoid prison, where he would have landed if he was convicted of kidnapping his first wife and son in Baker City, Ore., in 1996.

The paper requested more public records about the case and Montwheeler's release, but the PSRB didn't respond.

"I asked the agency [to] give me the index to every exhibit that was entered and then I cross-referenced that with what was mentioned in the hearing and requested the documents. And that's what started the fight," Zaitz said. "There was absolutely no response or any effort whatsoever to explain this case and I find that rather appalling."

So the Malheur Enterprise filed with the Oregon attorney general and asked her to review the agency's decision and determine whether they should or shouldn't be withholding the public records.

The AG sided with the paper and ordered the board to turn over public records sought by the Malheur Enterprise.

"I'm still trying to figure out what the state knew, when state officials knew it, and what they did about it. Those are the unanswered questions," Zaitz added.

In response, the PSRB turned around and sued the newspaper, as state agencies can do when they have legal concerns about an order from the AG.

"As best I can tell, this is only the third time in 30 years that a state agency has defied the attorney general," Zaitz said. "This is a very rare thing for the State to sue."

But on Tuesday, after meeting with Gov. Brown, the board responded to the public records request, withdrew their appeal, and dismissed the lawsuit, complying with the attorney general's Disclosure Order.

Gov. Brown issued the following statement regarding the AG's order to the PSRB to release public records related to the Montwheeler case. (The board, while appointed by the governor, is an independent board.):

"Due to the extraordinary circumstances of the Tony Montwheeler case, I have asked the PSRB to dismiss its public records lawsuit, to fully comply with the Attorney General's order, and to release the public records requested by the Malheur County Enterprise. The PSRB has agreed to take these actions immediately.

"Oregonians deserve a government that is transparent to the fullest extent permitted by law. No one requesting public records should be at risk of being sued by a state agency. I believe the public is best served by bringing this matter to an end now, rather than after a lengthy and costly litigation.

"This issue highlights improvements that need to be made to the public records law when it comes to getting a legal determination from a court when the law is ambiguous. An agency that has legal concerns about an Attorney General's order is currently forced under state law to sue the requestor. This is plain wrong. I have directed my staff to explore solutions that would provide for swift judicial resolution without filing a lawsuit against a requester."

The board issued the following statement to KTVB on Tuesday evening:

"The PSRB responded to the Malheur Enterprise public records request by releasing a majority of the requested documents except for medical records. The decision to withhold medical records, which are submitted to the Board by medical providers, and to pursue an appeal of the AG's decision, was done in good faith to ensure we complied with federal and state laws regarding the re-disclosure of medical records. The Board does not take any pleasure in litigating with a requestor, however, we took the only available avenue currently allowed under Oregon law to seek clarification on the matter. After careful deliberation, the PSRB has withdrawn the appeal and complied with the Attorney General's Disclosure Order.

"The Board looks forward to the continued discussion around the much needed improvements to the public records law that places our agency in a no-win position of either suing a requester or facing potential legal liability."

"It is always invariably that public officials, state agencies and local governments will resist disclosure of documents when there's been some misconduct or a misstep by government or they're either going to be embarrassed or indicted," Zaitz said.

He says he anticipated receiving those records Tuesday night.

"I'm hoping that they will fill in the gaps to answer those questions," Zaitz added.

Since the lawsuit was filed last week, the paper started a fundraiser to fight back and pay for legal fees.

"I also knew that if we did a fundraising campaign that it would signal to the state the public's unhappiness with this," Zaitz told KTVB. "People were so upset across the country. I was getting pledges from New York, Illinois, Mississippi, California, Idaho, Washington, plus all over Oregon. And that was in one day!"

Zaitz says this shows sweeping and increasing concern about government secrecy, and the decline in reporters to hold them accountable.

"They forget that we represent the average citizen who doesn't have the time to go to city council meetings or to request records," Zaitz said. "One of the things I hope to do here is to show what a small newspaper can do and be an inspiration to other small news organizations that maybe we can do better. Because we need to."

Montwheeler is scheduled to enter a plea to charges of aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping on April 17.

KTVB also filed public records requests with the PSRB for access to public records about Montwheeler and his release, as there is a strong public interest in both Idaho and Oregon about this case.

We will continue updating this story as those records become available.

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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