DEADLY DECISION: State agency refuses AG order to turn over Montwheeler records

Anthony W. Montwheeler appears at his arraignment in Malheur County Circuit Court on charges of aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping. He is accused of stabbing his ex-wife to death on Jan. 9, 2017, and then crashing head-on into another vehicle while fleeing police. The collision killed the other driver and injured his wife. (Malheur Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

The Enterprise

The state Psychiatric Security Review Board is defying a state order that it release public records to the Malheur Enterprise and intends to sue the weekly newspaper to keep the records secret.

Such a suit would be only the third time in the past 30 years a state agency has gone to court to keep its records secret.

The state board wants to keep confidential certain records it used in deciding last December to discharge from state custody Anthony W. Montwheeler, 49. Three weeks after that decision, police say Montwheeler kidnapped and killed his ex-wife and then killed a Vale man and injured his wife in a collision as he was eluding police.

He has been under Security Review Board’s jurisdiction since 1996 after being found guilty but insane in an earlier kidnapping case. The board released Montwheeler after learning in December that he had been faking his mental illness for 20 years.

The Enterprise sought access to 15 of the 227 documents admitted as exhibits. The records included recent risk assessments of Montwheeler by state hospital officials.

Under the Oregon Public Records Law, government records generally are open to the public. Exceptions allow agencies to keep some records confidential.

In a Feb. 6 letter to the newspaper, Juliet Britton, Security Review Board executive director, said state and federal law prohibited the agency from releasing the documents. She also said that disclosing two documents would “be an unreasonable invasion of a private citizen’s personal privacy.”

She did release board orders regarding Montwheeler and the audio recording of the Dec. 7 hearing. Montwheeler and state professionals testified in that open session about his mental condition and treatment.

The Enterprise appealed her decision to withhold records to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who has the power under state law to require state agencies to release public documents.

Greg Roberts, superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital, cautioned Rosenblum in a Feb. 17 letter not to order the records released. If she did, he said, his staff might cut off information it gives the Security Review Board. The board relies on such information in deciding how to handle dangerous and mentally ill people.

Roberts also said his staff might change what it enters in medical files so patients would trust their personal information wouldn’t get out. He said this could mean “watered down” patient records.

“This is frankly dangerous,” Roberts wrote.

Rosenblum’s office subsequently said that the newspaper was entitled to the documents it requested. The public records order issued March 15 and supplemented a week later said there would be some redactions.

In the order, Deputy Attorney General Fred Boss concluded the law didn’t prohibit release of the records. He also rejected the Security Review Board’s claim that secrecy was needed to protect Montwheeler’s privacy. He said the Enterprise “has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the public interest requires disclosure.”

He said “that general interest is magnified enormously by the specific facts of this case” and that “there is a strong public interest in understanding and evaluating the bases for PSRB’s release decision.”

Rather than comply, the Security Review Board retained at public expense the private law firm of Harrang Long, which on March 22 notified the Enterprise to expect to be sued to block access to the state’s records. The Security Review Board last week couldn’t produce a contract or any other record showing the cost of hiring the outside lawyers.

Additional story: Anthony Montwheeler released from state control despite warning.