Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Small weekly in rural Oregon wins battle for records when governor intercedes on its behalf

Les Zaitz (Poynter photo)
The publisher of a weekly newspaper in rural Vale, Oregon, won his battle to release records about a murder suspect who had earlier admitted feigning insanity to avoid prison, when the governor ordered a recalcitrant state agency to turn over the documents.

Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise, circulation 2,000, and his reporters discovered Anthony Montwheeler "had a criminal background stretching back 25 years; he previously kidnapped his former wife and 3-year-old son; and — most importantly — he was released by Oregon officials just 23 days before the latest crimes,' reports Benjamin Mullin of The Poynter Institute. "But Zaitz knew he was looking at one of the biggest stories of his career when the team discovered that Montwheeler had avoided a seven-year prison sentence by convincing a psychologist that he was mentally ill. Then, years after he was confined to a mental hospital, he was released by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board when he admitted to faking his mental illness."

Zaitz got an audio recording of the board's meeting and wrote a story, but the board refused to release 15 exhibits it used in making its decision. The state attorney general, who has the power to require agencies to release documents, ordered it do do so, but it refused and planned to file a lawsuit to block the release. Zaitz set up a defense fund through the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

Then Gov. Kate Brown "took the rare step of intervening in the case, calling the review board's lawsuit 'plain wrong' and ordered the records released," Mullin recounts. "No one requesting public records should be at risk of being sued by a state agency," Brown wrote. "I believe the public is best served by bringing this matter to an end now, rather than after a lengthy and costly litigation."

Zaitz is offering refunds to those who donated to the defense fund. "If they do not want their money returned, it will be used to create a new fund at ONPA, one aimed at helping the state’s small newspapers," the Bend Bulletin reported in an editorial.

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