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High-ranking state official leaked thousands of John Kitzhaber’s personal emails

…The Oregonian / Oregonlive – May 28, 2015…

One of the remaining questions from the controversy surrounding John Kitzhaber was answered Wednesday when a high-ranking state official admitted leaking thousands of the former governor’s personal emails.

Michael Rodgers, interim administrator of the State Data Center, said he felt the emails were public records and that complying with requests from Kitzhaber’s office in February to remove them from the state’s server would have been illegal.

Rodgers’ disclosure came in a report published Wednesday by Willamette Week, which had relied on Rodgers’ leaks for a series of stories about Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. The leaked emails revealed Kitzhaber’s political and legal strategies and Hayes’ ambitions to profit from years in public service.

Rodgers said he was motivated to give out the emails because he wasn’t sure whom he could trust in state government. He wanted to safeguard the emails from any mishandling or destruction by the Kitzhaber administration. He said he had witnessed earlier instances of state agencies failing to disclose public records completely or in a timely manner.

“My big thing is that I wanted people to understand how Oregon government works,” he said in a brief conversation Wednesday with The Oregonian/OregonLive.

He said in an online post he was facing criminal charges from the Marion County District Attorney’s Office if he didn’t agree to resign his job. He said he wouldn’t do so. He made the remark in a request for donations to cover his legal costs.

“I have stood my ground,” he wrote, “because I do not believe that I did anything wrong.”

Michael Levine, a Portland attorney representing Rodgers, said his client is “getting no personal benefit, he’s just getting aggravation and enormous psychological pressure.”

“He may have ended his career. He may be facing criminal charges,” he added. “But Michael did nothing legally wrong and if he is charged, I am confident he will be vindicated.”

The controversy developed earlier this year when state officials realized they had been archiving emails from two email accounts used by Kitzhaber. One used for state business was meant to be saved. A second account intended for his private use was inadvertently stored, state officials said.

Rodgers told Willamette Week that he copied about 6,000 emails to a thumb drive, read them and saw many had to do with Kitzhaber’s state work. He provided the emails to Willamette Week on Feb. 11.

Contents of the leaked emails were published the following week. Rodgers, paid $143,000 annually, was subsequently put on paid administrative leave as the state opened an investigation into the leak. He has been a state employee 15 years.

Another state data center worker, Marshall Wells, also was put on administrative leave at the time. Both remain on leave.

The leaked emails were among those subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, which sought them from the state as part of its public corruption investigation of Kitzhaber and Hayes. Janet Hoffman, Kitzhaber’s attorney, later sought a court order to block the state from turning over the emails to federal investigators, and the status of that effort isn’t known.

Rodgers’ actions spurred indignation among attorneys, particularly Kithzaber’s. The leaked emails contained details of Kitzhaber’s legal strategy for cutting short an investigation by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. His attorneys said such emails were marked “privileged.”

“It’s outrageous that Rodgers somehow thinks it was proper for him to steal and leak attorney-client privileged communications,” said Jim McDermott, one of Kitzhaber’s attorneys. “Like the physician-patient privilege, the attorney-client privilege is sacrosanct in our American legal system.”

It was that release that puts Rodgers in legal jeopardy. He could be facing multiple counts of official misconduct, a misdemeanor.

Amy Queen, spokeswoman for Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau, said she couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation. She wouldn’t say whether Rodgers is sole target of the investigation into the leaked emails.

Rodgers has not sought help from the state for his legal costs. By law, state employees facing criminal investigations stemming from their work can have up to $35,000 of legal costs paid by taxpayers.

Instead, Rodgers has gone public with a fundraising page with a goal of $50,000. By late Wednesday afternoon, donors had committed $2,705.

Word of Rodgers’ admission triggered discussions online about whether he acted appropriately.  Some commenters wondered why Rodgers didn’t take the emails to law enforcement officials if he was concerned about conduct by state officials. Others proclaimed him Oregon’s Edward Snowden, a reference to the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a massive archive of classified communications.

Rodgers’ concerns also raised questions about whether other potential whistleblowers have felt discouraged from reporting misconduct.

Organized labor is watching Rodgers’ case closely. Union leaders have consistently fought to put whistleblower protection language into labor contracts.

Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon AFSCME, said Rodgers has been unjustly punished.

“He should not have been harmed because he leaked information to the media,” Allen said. “We represent thousands of state workers. If any one of them sees illegal or unethical activity, they should feel that their reporting of that is a protected act.”

State employees filed 180 complaints of suspected waste, fraud or abuse to a whistleblower hotline operated by the Secretary of State’s office, up from 154 the year before.

“We know that people are reporting waste fraud and abuse,” said Tony Green, spokesman for the office. “We think the confidentiality provision is encouraging people to do so.”

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