Editor’s Note: Help us defend your right to government information

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)

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

We’re going to defend ourselves and your right to government information but we need your help.

The Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board sued the Malheur Enterprise last week to keep it from gaining access to public records. The records relate to the state management of Anthony W. Montwheeler, who said he feigned mental illness for 20 years to stay out of prison. A month after the Security Review Board discharged him, he was accused of kidnapping and killing his third ex-wife, and killing a Vale man and injuring his wife in a collision while fleeing police.

The Enterprise sought records to understand the state’s actions and the Security Review Board denied access to 15 records used as evidence at its hearings. We appealed to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office, which agreed the documents should be released. The Security Review Board, rather than obey the order, sued the Enterprise in hopes of keeping the records secret. The lawsuit is extraordinary because it is only the third time in the past 30 years a state agency has defied an attorney general’s order to disclose records.

The Security Review Board has hired private attorneys for the case. The lead lawyer on the case will bill the state agency $400 an hour.

As a tiny newspaper and a small business, the Enterprise can’t match that kind of legal firepower from its own pockets.

That’s why we are creating the Enterprise Defense Fund. We want to raise $20,000 in the next 30 days to come close to matching the state. We have retained Duane Bosworth of the Portland law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine. Bosworth has deep experience in successful public records fights in Oregon.

Let me distill some key points:

How did we get here?

The Malheur Enterprise learned after the January episode that Anthony Montwheeler had recently been under the jurisdiction of the Security Review Board. The board turned over its orders and a recording of a crucial hearing from last December that led to Montwheeler’s release but declined to release 15 records. The documents included risk assessments of Montwheeler by professionals at the Oregon State Hospital.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office considered the newspaper’s challenge to that denial. Her office concluded no law prohibited disclosure of the records and that there was significant public interest in them. The Security Review Board was ordered to release the records with some redactions. Instead, the board sued in Marion County Circuit Court, raising many of the claims considered and rejected by Rosenblum’s office.

What happens now?

The next move is up to the Enterprise, at least in court. The newspaper has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. If it doesn’t, the state can seek a court ruling that it automatically wins. If that happens, the Security Review Board can keep the public records secret and continue brushing off questions about how it handled the Montwheeler case.

What is the Malheur Enterprise?

We are a weekly newspaper serving Malheur County, one of the poorest counties in the Oregon and literally in another time zone from the rest of Oregon. The newspaper, founded in 1909, is based in Vale and family owned. It is one of the state’s smallest newspapers.

Why should I help?

This case is really not about the Malheur Enterprise. It’s about holding accountable people who run government. This is a horrific case. Two people are dead, two families traumatized. The state is trying to keep secret public records that will document what state officials knew about Anthony Montwheeler and what they did with that knowledge. Were their decisions reasonable?

If the state is allowed to win this case, you can anticipate that other state agencies and local governments to become emboldened in defying access to public documents. That means less and less will be known about how officials are conducting public business.

And if the state is allowed to thwart the Enterprise, you can expect a chilling effect on other news organizations. Few newsrooms these days can afford the costs of fighting government secrecy. Our society won’t be well served if people know less of the truth about public officials.

How can I help?

Donate to Enterprise Defense Fund through the Oregon Newspaper Foundation. The foundation is the tax-exempt arm of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association so donations routed through it are tax deductible. Make out a check for any amount to Oregon Newspaper Foundation/EDF or otherwise designate the donation for the defense fund. Mail to Oregon Newspaper Foundation, 4000 Kruse Way Place, Bldg 2-160, Lake Oswego, OR, 97035 or to the Malheur Enterprise PO Box 310 Vale OR 97918 for forwarding. Credit card payments can be made by calling the foundation at 503-624-6397, ext 30. (3.5% processing fee applies). If you wish your donation to remain anonymous please so indicate as we intend to publicly list and thank supporters. See donation form below to make it easy.

Where does the money go?

Funds will be used for legal costs. Any excess funds after the case is closed, if any, will be donated to nonprofit journalism organizations selected by the Enterprise. In no event will any donated money go to operations of the newspaper.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Enterprise. [email protected]; (541) 473-3377.

Related links:

Original story: https://tinyurl.com/k3xcuxe

Story on records fight: https://tinyurl.com/kxx6qyq

Story on lawsuit: https://tinyurl.com/myg9rco

Attorney general’s disclosure order: https://tinyurl.com/nyqxbpp

State’s court complaint: https://tinyurl.com/m4x9unn