EDITORIAL: State should focus on real safety risk, not supposed threats from open records

State officials went into crisis mode earlier this year when it became apparent that records regarding Anthony Montwheeler would be released. They formed teams. They spent a fortune on lawyers. And they tried to panic other officials into keeping the documents confidential.

Montwheeler is the Idaho man who for nearly 20 years was treated as mentally ill in Oregon. He then insisted he had been faking his illness all along, and a state psychiatrist contravened years of diagnosis to say Montwheeler wasn’t ill enough to keep in state control. Less than a month later, two people were dead and a third injured in crimes now charged to Montwheeler.

The details of Montwheeler’s time in state control emerged in files released to the Malheur Enterprise. Officials at the Oregon State Hospital and the Oregon Health Authority fought that release, and then tried a legislative end run to see such records weren’t disclosed again. They failed on both counts, but not before making claims that warrant close public attention.

Those claims started with Greg Roberts, then superintendent of the state hospital. He wrote the state Justice Department that giving up Montwheeler’s records was “dangerous.” In later legislative testimony, two of his subordinates piled on. Micky Logan, the hospital’s legal affairs director, and Dr. Simrat Sethi, a hospital supervisory psychiatrist, painted darks days ahead for Oregon if legislators didn’t heed their call to seal records.

The state officials asserted that patients wouldn’t be honest with doctors and some who should be kept in custody would instead be turned loose on Oregon. The state would err the other way, keeping cooped up in the state hospital people who should go home. And state doctors, they warned, would water down their medical files to keep information off the record.

And in the gravest threat to Oregonians, agency officials said the state hospital wouldn’t share all it knew with the state agency that oversees those guilty but insane of committing crimes. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board would be blind to crucial information. “This is frankly dangerous,” Roberts said.

The message: Oregonians wouldn’t be safe and state patients ill treated if the public got access to certain medical records. No one could, or should, ignore such harms. Health officials were right to raise the alarm if state disclosures truly would trigger such havoc.

Despite their pleas, the Montwheeler records were released and his case got wide attention across the state. That would seem cause enough to prompt the changes state officials forecast. Last week, the Enterprise asked state officials about their earlier claims. Have patients gone silent? Are doctors doctoring their files? Did state professionals stop sharing all they knew with the Security Review Board, which has the duty to decide the fate of those guilty of crimes but insane?

The Oregon Health Authority said it had nothing to report. An agency representative, Jonathan Modie, said officials knew of no documents chronicling the harms that they said would result from disclosure. Modie said the agency wouldn’t make a statement or provide any interviews on the point. Modie backed the agency away from the threats made earlier this year: “OHA offered its opinion of what may occur in the event such records are disclosed.”

That’s nonsense. Roberts and Sethi repeatedly said bad things will happen if records are released. That’s not opinion. They exhibited no uncertainty or ambiguity as they hyped the dangers that would imperil Oregonians over disclosing public records.

That the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon State Hospital now want to duck accountability for their alarmist remarks isn’t surprising. Agency officials still haven’t demonstrated accountability for Montwheeler’s release. That’s the genuine threat to public safety. — LZ