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Oregon DOJ Intentionally Destroyed Records; Target of Abusive Criminal Investigation Settles Suit for $1 Million

The Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) deliberately destroyed emails and withheld records related to a botched high-profile criminal investigation, a state court found. One of the targets of that investigation filed a lawsuit against the DOJ which recently settled for $1 million.

In August 2010, Oregon Attorney General John R. Kroger and Sean C. Riddell, Chief Counsel of the DOJ’s Criminal Justice division, accused four Department of Energy (DOE) employees, including interim director Mark Long, of improperly steering a $60,000 contract to the governor’s girlfriend to curry political favor. The employees were placed on administrative leave for nearly a year. During the investigation, Riddell lied to witnesses and tried to coerce and intimidate them. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.40].

Long hired former Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer and his partner William Gary – also a former DOJ attorney – to represent him. On January 25, 2011, they filed a public records request seeking documents related to the criminal investigation involving the DOE employees. When the DOJ failed to produce the records, Long filed suit against Kroger and the state for violations of Oregon’s Public Records Act.

“This week, I learned that ... Chief Counsel Riddell had deleted a large number of government emails under the mistaken belief that they had been backed up on computer tape,” Kroger, a former prosecutor, said in a June 17, 2011 press release announcing Riddell’s demotion. “Although we were able to recover many of the deleted emails, an unknown number have been lost permanently.”

The missing emails just happened to be among the records requested by Long.

At the conclusion of its $600,000 investigation, the DOJ found no evidence supporting criminal charges against the DOE employees. Even so, Kroger recommended that they be fired. An independent investigation concluded that the employees did nothing wrong and they were reinstated to their positions.

Long’s public records lawsuit went to trial before Marion County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Hart in April 2012. At trial, Riddell testified that he had worked “countless hours” to collect documents responsive to Long’s public records request, though he acknowledged making “some mistakes.”

Riddell claimed that his deletion of the emails was an accident and that he thought they were saved somewhere else. Judge Hart did not buy Riddell’s excuses. “I find that Mr. Riddell was deliberately evasive and his testimony unpersuasive,” Hart ruled on April 20, 2012.

“This court finds and believes there was a deliberate choice not to produce the documents during the time period ... at a time when it would have been useful to Mr. Long,” concluded Hart. The state was ordered to produce additional records which had not been disclosed and to pay Long’s six-figure attorney fees.

Judge Hart’s credibility finding was apparently the final nail in Riddell’s coffin. In May 2012, Riddell quietly left the DOJ.

It was not, however, the end of his legal problems. When the DOE employees threatened to sue in mid-2011, the state entered into mediation. Long, who had returned to state employment, opted out of the settlement negotiations and filed suit against the DOJ, Kroger and Riddell in state court on June 21, 2012.

The suit accused the defendants of racketeering and alleged Riddell had violated Long’s constitutional rights during the DOE criminal investigation when he withheld and destroyed key documents, attempted to persuade two other suspects to lie and falsely stated that he had produced all relevant records.

“[Long] was a rising star” in state government, said Gary, Long’s attorney. “I think it’s safe to say that that career was significantly derailed by the false accusations that he was subjected to. He was put on house arrest for several months.”

“As Attorney General, the buck stops with me,” Kroger had stated when he demoted Riddell. “I take full responsibility for errors made under my leadership.”

Kroger apparently failed to appreciate just how true those words would be. On October 18, 2011, he discontinued his reelection campaign, citing an undisclosed “significant but not life threatening medical condition.” Kroger subsequently resigned from office on June 29, 2012 – six months before the expiration of his term – to take a position as president of a small Oregon liberal arts college.

Long’s lawsuit was removed to federal court and settled on August 22, 2013, with the state agreeing to pay $1 million to resolve his claims that Kroger and others at the DOJ had violated his rights. Long also received 5½ weeks of lost vacation time.

The settlement represents a sad and tarnished legacy for Oregon’s Department of Justice and the state’s former top law enforcement official. See: Long v. Kroger, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:12-cv-01383-TC.

Unsurprisingly, no criminal charges were filed against Kroger, though Gary observed, “his politics future is not nearly as rosy as it once was.”

Sources: The Oregonian, Statesman Journal

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Related legal case

Long v. Kroger