Overzealous prosecution: John Kroger drops the ball – again

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON OREGONLIVE.COM 6/16/11 -

Can’t anyone here play this game?

That was the lament of legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel in 1962 when, at age 72, he led the first-year New York Mets to a record 120-loss season. But Oregonians may be asking the same question about the state Department of Justice under Attorney General John Kroger.

No sooner had the investigation into Cylviagate finally closed and the four Department of Energy employees on paid leave returned to their jobs than Kroger’s DOJ rushed to make public its voluminous files on the case. Unfortunately, included among them were a number of documents covered by a judicial protective order prohibiting their disclosure.

This order was obtained from a Marion County judge at the request of, you guessed it, Kroger’s office.

The reason Kroger requested the protective order in the first place was to make amends for his office having wrongly released these same confidential documents to defense attorneys earlier in the investigation. This most recent news broke shortly after Kroger returned from a political fundraising event in New Orleans.

Unfortunately for his political ambitions, this is just the latest in a long list of embarrassing mishaps during Kroger’s 2 1/2 years in office.

Last month, the Oregonian’s Jeff Manning reported on Kroger’s gross mishandling of the investigation into alleged misconduct by Umatilla County District Attorney Dean Gushwa.

The DOJ originally charged that Gushwa had committed a broad range of serious felonies. Though none of these accusations panned out, Kroger finally nailed Gushwa, anyway — on a single misdemeanor count of wrongly claiming a $6 government discount on a hotel room.

Gushwa also agreed to resign his office, saying, “I felt like they’d already destroyed my effectiveness as DA anyway.”

The Oregonian estimates the entire investigation cost taxpayers more than $400,000, including the cost of the DOJ running the Umatilla County district attorney’s office during the investigation (while Gushwa was also being paid, naturally). Added to the more than $600,000 estimated cost for Cylviagate, that’s a cool million dollars for two high-profile investigations resulting in one minor misdemeanor conviction.

And that is just the cost in dollars.

Umatilla County residents were even more outraged that, during its operation of their DA’s office, the DOJ dropped the ball in the retrial of a convicted murderer who was finally allowed to simply plead guilty to manslaughter.

Even local judges expressed their outrage with the way the case was handled. Umatilla County Circuit Judge Garry Reynolds, one of the most respected trial judges in the state, commented from the bench, “I am completely dismayed by the way this case has gone forward. … I do not feel that the state of Oregon’s interests were protected. .. That it was resolved in the manner that it was resolved is not a service to this county.”

Senior Judge Richard Courson felt compelled to write a letter to the East Oregonian newspaper, saying, “It is evident that the ‘plea deal’ was an excuse to try and conclude a ‘botched prosecution.’”

These are not isolated instances. Last April, after one of my earlier columns on the problems in the attorney general’s office, I received an email from a distinguished Oregon jurist now retired from the bench. Although I agreed not to disclose his name, his observations deserve to be shared:

“Under (former attorney generals) Jim Redden, Lee Johnson, Dave Frohnmayer and Hardy Myers, that office was arguably the best law firm in Oregon. It started to go downhill immediately following Mr. Kroger’s assumption of the office. Many experienced and competent lawyers have left. Morale is low. The quality of their work (see your article) is not as good as it was; in some cases, it is poor. Some say that aggressiveness has replaced professionalism.

“Most judges are reluctant to speak on the record concerning these problems. Off the record, many of them agree with me.”

By all accounts, Kroger was an excellent professor at Lewis & Clark Law School. When he comes up for re-election next year, perhaps he would be doing himself and Oregon a favor if he returned to what he does best.

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