Governor Kate Brown has ordered a ‘review’ of the Oregon Department of Corrections after the early release of a controversial juvenile commutation plan

Noelle Crombie / (TNS)

Last fall, Governor Kate Brown’s office asked the Oregon Department of Corrections whether an employee revealed the governor’s controversial plan to commute the sentences of hundreds of minors serving time for the most serious crimes. more violent.

Brown confirmed this week that her office ordered what she called a “review” of how The Oregonian/OregonLive obtained a copy of her September 28 letter detailing plans to grant clemency to recognized minors. guilty of the crimes of measure 11.

Brown defended the investigation, saying she wanted to make sure “no errors were made in our policies and practices.”

“I think it’s incredibly important that our state employees follow the law, follow state regulations, and follow policies,” she said.

She did not specify which regulations or policies were violated by the release of the public document. His spokeswoman, Elizabeth Merah, did not respond to a follow-up question about the regulations, but said the governor was seeking to ensure the Department of Corrections was handling his letter “consistent with past practices.”

“Because outreach to trauma-informed victims is an extremely important part of the commutation review process, it is important to the Governor that our ability to do this outreach in a meaningful way is not compromised,” Merah wrote. . “There is no doubt that the letter is a public document.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive published an article on October 5 about the governor’s plans to commute the sentences of some juvenile offenders. The story was based on Brown’s letter to Director of Corrections Colette Peters in which she requested the names of those convicted as minors before lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1008, which amended the prosecution of young offenders. The bill, approved in 2019, was not retroactive, meaning it did not apply to minors who were already serving a sentence.

Brown outlined her criteria for two groups of juvenile offenders: those she would consider for potential release after a review process and others who would be eligible for parole.

At the time, Brown’s plan took prosecutors, victims and their families by surprise. Some said they learned about it from reading it on The Oregonian/OregonLive.

About a month later, in early November, Berri Leslie, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, and Brown’s public safety adviser Constantin Severe held a conference call with Director of Corrections Colette Peters, according to multiple employees at the state familiar with internal discussions but not authorized to speak publicly.

Leslie told Peters that Brown was angry about the publication of the letter, the sources said. That day, Brown left for Glasgow to attend a United Nations conference on climate change. Leslie told Peters the governor expected her to produce the name of the person responsible for publishing the letter upon her return, the sources said.

Peters then launched the review, which involved examining employees’ state email accounts for evidence that someone had released the public record, the sources said.

Public records obtained from the Department of Corrections suggest the agency reviewed the government email accounts of about two dozen employees.

It is unclear whether these employees were notified that their emails were being reviewed.

The effort seems to have yielded nothing. Brown told The Oregonian/OregonLive that no one was disciplined as a result.

In an email Thursday, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Amber Campbell said the agency “engaged in a process review” at the governor’s request.

“The research concluded very clearly that the letter was treated in the same way that similarly written switch letters were treated,” Campbell said in the email. Peters, she said, “advised the governor’s office that the letter had been handled appropriately.”

“To be clear, this referenced document is a public record, so even if the research concludes that an employee distributed themselves from a DOC server at the Oregonian, we would not and could not discipline that employee,” she said.

The governor wasn’t the only one interested in how The Oregonian/OregonLive got the letter.

Conrad Engweiler, a paralegal at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, filed a public records request with the Department of Corrections seeking emails between the agency and The Oregonian/OregonLive at the time of the governor’s letter. The Justice Resource Center advocates for the dismantling of mass incarceration.

The agency provided Engweiler’s request and subsequent correspondence in response to a public records request from the news agency.

Engweiler, in his email to the corrections department, said he wanted to know who posted the letter because he suspected the effort was aimed at undermining the governor’s “internal communications” with the agency.

Engweiler himself is a former juvenile delinquent who served 25 years in prison for the 1990 rape and murder of 16-year-old Erin Tonna Reynolds, a classmate at Sunset High School. He has been out of prison since 2014.

Brown campaigned on transparency and criticized his predecessor, Gov. John Kitzhaber, for not making it a priority. Brown took office after Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 amid an influence peddling scandal.

But Brown has sought to tightly control the flow of information to the public in his own administration. His advisers are not allowed to speak to journalists. Early in his administration, Brown lobbied to create a new position of public records advocate, but the first attorney later resigned, citing pressure from Brown’s top lawyer to covertly defend the governor’s desired policies on records. public records.

Tim Gleason, professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, said it’s one thing to have a policy in place for releasing public material, but it’s It’s quite another to launch an investigation because a public document is published outside. of these channels.

“It’s disheartening,” he said. “This type of activity has a chilling effect on public access to public information and sets the tone…it’s not entirely healthy in government.”

Jeff Merrick, the attorney who this week received a six-figure sum from the city of Portland to settle a long-running public records battle, said Brown began his tenure with an eye on transparency, but “when the archives might serve those who hold opinions different from its own, it appears to be less interested in following the law or fostering a culture of transparency.

In an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive, he said the governor’s letter outlining his plans to commute some minors “certainly sounds like official business to me and is of great interest to the people of the state of Oregon.” ‘Oregon.

“Trust in government melts when so-called leaders lack the courage to pursue their policies in public,” he wrote. “I have seen it locally: withholding information so that the opposition does not have time to regroup. Ambush politics may be easier, but it’s corrosive, and that’s the last thing we need these days.

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