EDITORIAL: Governor should step in again, this time ordering investigation

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)

Gov. Kate Brown did the public a service by clipping a state agency’s effort to thwart records disclosure by suing. Now, she needs to hold accountable the state Psychiatric Security Review Board its conduct in its case that caused the furor.

The Security Review Baord for 20 years had the duty to protect the public from Anthony W. Montwheeler. He was found guilty except for insanity in the 1996 kidnapping of his wife and son in Baker City, and more recently admitted he had faked his illness to avoid prison. The Security Review Board released him last December and he now stands accused of aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping.

The public rightly questions how this could happen. So far, the Security Review Board has kept mum. So has the Oregon State Hospital, which treated Montwheeler for years and recommended his release, and the Oregon Health Authority, which is in charge of the hospital.

The Security Review Board recent behavior suggests it doesn’t want anyone nosing around in its business. The agency defied the state attorney general’s order to turn over records about Montwheeler to the Enterprise. Instead of obeying, the board sued the newspaper. The governor short circuited what was likely to be costly litigation for taxpayers and for the newspaper by getting the board to drop the lawsuit and hand over the records.

The agency subsequently cast itself as the victim, saying it had no choice but to sue the newspaper or be sued by Montwheeler.

The agency revealed its attitude towards accountability early. Soon after Montwheeler was arrested in January, the agency’s executive director, Juliet Britton, said the agency couldn’t release anything about him. When later challenged, Britton admitted the audio of the hearing and the board’s detailed orders were all open to the public and turned them over. Britton since then has declined repeated opportunities to explain.

When asked about the board’s actions with Montwheeler, Britton repeatedly said she couldn’t discuss the case at all because the agency’s lawyers said not to. She was following her lawyer’s advice. But when state lawyers told Britton to turn over records on the case, Britton’s deference to counsel evaporated. She decided to doubt the state attorneys, keep the records, and hire outside lawyers to do what she wanted, which was to sue the newspaper.

After the governor’s prod, the agency did promptly release the 125 pages of records sought by the Enterprise. Now, it is processing the rest of its Montwheeler file for release, but warns that could take some time. These are crucial to filling in blanks about this case.

One way to fill those blanks would be for the state to review the matter itself. So far, the Security Review Board hasn’t acted on its chair’s stated hope back in December that someone investigate the Montwheeler case. By late last week, the state agency had made no move to do so. The Oregon State Hospital and Oregon Health Authority haven’t answered whether will do what the Security Review Board won’t.

The better course now would be for the governor to step in again. Too many questions remain about what state officials knew about Montwheeler and the steps available to protect the public from someone diagnosed repeatedly as a risk. We urge the governor to appoint an outside investigator to dig in – and send the bill to the Security Review Board. — LZ