Kroger comes down a notch or two
It was the perfect story to break on a Friday afternoon, when public attention was drifting off for the weekend: Oregon attorney general John Kroger was "accepting the resignation" of his chief in charge of criminal matters. But it was a remarkable announcement on a number of levels -- certainly worth pondering under the fluorescent lights of a back-to-work Monday.
First of all, what actually happened? Did the deputy, Sean Riddell, resign, or did he get canned? The announcement seems to have it both ways, but it certainly indicates that he was disciplined:
I am announcing today that Sean Riddell, Chief Counsel of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Division, has resigned his management position.... I am very proud of our record and of our attorneys’ integrity and commitment to public service. I acknowledge, however, that we have made mistakes in a small number of high profile cases. This week, I learned that in addition to these errors, Chief Counsel Riddell had deleted a large number of government e-mails under the mistaken belief that they had been backed up on computer tape. Although we were able to recover many of the deleted e-mails, an unknown number have been lost permanently. The Department of Justice must scrupulously uphold its obligation to preserve government records. As Attorney General, the buck stops with me. I take full responsibility for errors made under my leadership.Don't you love it when the boss "takes full responsibility" by firing an underling?
Also curious is the suggestion that the department doesn't back up its e-mail every night and keep it for a number of years. Unless Riddell was scrubbing his account every afternoon before he went home, one would have thought that copies were being kept. Even more puzzling is why he deleted the e-mail messages. Depending on his motivation, the matter could have merited a more serious punishment than mere loss of manager status. On the other hand, the e-mail issue may be just a pretext for demoting Riddell, whose tactics on the job have made him many powerful enemies.
In any event, Riddell didn't get completely fired. He's going to be reassigned somewhere else in the Department of Justice, after a nice mini-sabbatical. One wonders if he still harbors ambitions to become the next Multnomah County district attorney. This episode may have put the kibosh on that dream.
Perhaps most significantly, the announcement also shows Kroger on the defensive -- the first time we've seen him that way since we first met him nine years ago:
I will not always be a perfect Attorney General. I cannot promise to never make mistakes. But, what I can promise is when there are errors in practice or judgment, they will be accompanied by accountability. As Attorney General, I will get up every day and work as hard as I can to protect Oregon and uphold the rule of law.That uncharacteristic bleat sounds like an invitation for some opposition to Kroger if he runs for re-election next year. But who would take him on? Greg Macpherson, whom he defeated for the Democratic nomination in '08? Union votes and union money propelled Kroger to victory in that race -- their raw revenge against Macpherson's pension reforms as a legislator -- but that was before the union in Kroger's own shop discovered that he's not their favorite boss ever.
On the Republican side, about the only viable candidates we can think of are Jack Roberts and Ron Saxton. Would either of them take a shot at the incumbent? It seems unlikely, but not as unlikely as it did a week ago.
At any rate, Riddell's departure is another in a series of setbacks for Kroger's program to reshape the attorney general's office from its slumbering state under his predecessor, Hardy Myers (uncharitably, but perhaps aptly, nicknamed "Hardly Matters"). Kroger's profile, established during his election run and pitched ever since through relentless press releases, consists largely of fighting crime, protecting the environment, and most recently, enhancing public access to government documents. In two and a half years, he's wound up firing both his criminal chief and his environmental chief for misconduct, and his legislative package on public records seems to be stuck in a Senate committee with time running out on the lawmaking session.
It's not the strongest performance he's ever turned in.