SALEM — After intervention from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board agreed Tuesday to drop a lawsuit against a rural newspaper seeking board records pertinent to a murder case.
The Malheur Enterprise sought records held by the board concerning Anthony Montwheeler, who is suspected of committing murder one month after the board allowed his release from state care.
Although the state’s attorney general said March 15 tht the records were public, the board last week sued the Malheur Enterprise to keep the records from being disclosed.
The Enterprise is a weekly newspaper based in Vale, purchased in October 2015 by longtime Oregon journalist Les Zaitz.
Both the governor and Zaitz said Tuesday the situation exemplified an issue with the state’s public records law.
The Psychiatric Security Review Board is a 10-member independent board that supervises people who have asserted “guilty except for insanity” defenses in criminal cases.
The board determines where to place people such as Tony Montwheeler. According to the Malheur Enterprise, Montwheeler was recently released from state care, although medical officials said he was dangerous.
The Enterprise reported Montwheeler, 49, ran a “medical con” in an effort to stay out of jail after a 1996 conviction for kidnapping.
He was released in December from the Oregon State Hospital, the newspaper reported.
According to police, the next month, Montwheeler allegedly kidnapped and killed his ex-wife. In the pursuit with police that ensued, Montwheeler allegedly hit another car, killing its driver and injuring the driver’s wife. Montwheeler is now back in jail, charged with aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping.
Calling the circumstances of the Montwheeler case “extraordinary,” Gov. Brown said in a statement that the board agreed to both drop the lawsuit and release the records immediately.
“I believe the public is best served by bringing this matter to an end now, rather than after a lengthy and costly litigation,” Brown said.
Unlike the Fish and Wildlife Commission, for example, under state law, the governor has limited means to fire or otherwise direct the actions of the Psychiatric Security Review Board.
The Malheur Enterprise reported Monday that the Psychiatric Security Review Board had hired a private attorney to pursue the lawsuit at a cost of $400 per hour.
In response, the Enterprise started a social media campaign to raise money for its legal defense. Zaitz said Tuesday that he didn’t know how much the campaign raised, as they were to be sent to the Oregon Newspaper Foundation, but that the cause garnered support “from literally all over the country.”
When a state agency denies a request for records, the requestor can appeal to the attorney general for a legal opinion on the matter.
In this case, the attorney general argued, among other assertions, that the work of the board was directly tied to questions of public safety and personal freedoms, tilting the argument in favor of transparency; and that releasing most of the records would not constitute an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.
But the board said it was worried that releasing medical records publicly would violate laws intended to protect patient privacy.
Brown said the situation showed where the state’s public records law needed improvement. She said state law required a state agency that has “legal concerns” about an AG’s public records order to sue the requestor to get a judge’s opinion.
“This is plain wrong,” Brown said. “I have directed my staff to explore solutions that would provide for swift judicial resolution without filing a lawsuit against a requester.”
In a statement published on the Enterprise’s website Tuesday, Zaitz said his paper was trying to hold state government accountable.
“We appreciate the governor sparing the taxpayers and our supporters a lengthy, costly legal battle,” Zaitz said. “This has always been a matter of holding the state accountable, not aimlessly wandering through private medical files.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Zaitz added that while the situation was “rare,” it represented a legal quirk that “doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Asked whether he was planning to lobby the Oregon Legislature on changing the law, Zaitz said: “No, I’ve got a paper to run, and we have more work to do on this story.”