EDITORIAL: Public deserves more state accountability on Montwheeler

After two people died on a highway outside Ontario in January, state health officials kept mum. They said they couldn’t breathe a word about the suspect, Anthony W. Montwheeler. But they had plenty to say when it turned out that public records would be released to illuminate the state’s actions in his case.

They had an after-hours meeting with a key legislator to urge a change to state law to make such records secret. They sat in a hastily called public hearing, misleading legislators with talk that fixing the law was just a “clarification.” And they created a patently false impression that if legislators didn’t do something, the public would be pawing through private medical records, a state agency would likely make bad and dangerous decisions, and doctors would, well, doctor their records about psychiatric patients.

The main witness was Micky Logan, legal affairs chief at the Oregon State Hospital. She never mentioned Montwheeler, who is accused of stabbing to death his fourth ex-wife and killing Vale resident David Bates and injuring his wife Jessica. The crimes occurred just weeks after the state Psychiatric Security Review Board concluded it had no basis to keep Montwheeler under its control. The decision relied on more than 700 pages of documents from the Oregon State Hospital. Those records trace the state’s treatment of Montwheeler for nearly 20 years – until hospital staff concluded he wasn’t mentally ill and agreed with his own diagnosis that he had been faking his illness.

Logan and her colleagues suggested to legislators that access to the Security Review Board’s records was an accident. No one realized they were open. She spoke of the grave dangers to patients and the public if such records are open. She and others only vaguely alluded to the fact the Legislature long ago decided that hearings before the Security Review Board should be public.

In one respect, these officials have it right: private medical records ordinarily ought to be off limits to the public. But state law also recognizes what they did not. There are rare occasions – and the Montwheeler case is just one – where such records are critical to understanding state actions. Current law provides for such exceptions. The Oregon Public Records Law already says that government agencies don’t have to turn over medical files they may hold. That restriction is trumped only if there is a significant and proven public interest – an interest that goes beyond idle curiosity, as in the Montwheeler case.

State health officials also want us to trust that they’ll inspect their own conduct as necessary. We’re told the state hospital sometimes does reviews when there is trouble with a patient, but no one will say if that happened with Montwheeler. The director of the Oregon Health Authority, which is in charge of the state hospital, should be alarmed by what went wrong. Yet Lynn Saxton hasn’t said a public word about the situation and otherwise declines comment. Her communications staff won’t say whether Saxton ordered an investigation. Saxton owes more to public safety than allowing her staff to quietly seek new laws to close public files.

The situation cries out for the public and the press to dig in. And Montwheeler’s case isn’t the only one at issue:

  • Joshua P. Jaschke, 37, was indicted in Lane County last month for the stabbing death of Spiros S. Ghenatos. According to the Eugene Register-Guard, Jaschke had been under the jurisdiction of the Security Review Board for a 2006 stabbing. Three months before Ghenatos’ murder, the Board told Jaschke to voluntarily return to the state hospital.
  • Charles A. Longjaw, 49, was indicted in Portland last November for the murder of Mark Whelan. A year before the murder, Longjaw had been discharged early by the Security Review Board, which had jurisdiction because he was guilty except for insanity for a 1986 murder.
  • Richard G. Youmans, 33, faces a felony drug charge in Malheur County, but is serving a prison sentence in Idaho for drug charges in that state. In 2013, he was discharged about 15 years early by the Security Review Board, which had been assigned jurisdiction after he successfully asserted the insanity defense to kidnap and sexual assault charges. Less than a year after his discharge, he was arrested for threatening a woman and has faced other felony charges since. When Ontario police stopped him in early 2016, they reported he was carrying a small ax and knife hidden in his clothes.

In each instance, innocent Oregonians apparently have suffered at the hands of people state health officials decided to let free. Security Review Board officials note they can only act on information provided by state doctors. So only the state hospital files will help the public learn and understand why its safety was jeopardized in these cases. Saxton and her staff ought not use the thin gauze of patient concern to cover possible government misconduct. – LZ