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Monday, June 20, 2011

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.

Comments (19)

I can't imagine a politician can have a disastrous run like this and not have opposition.

You left out the resignation of his Solicitor General, Jerry Lidz, in protest of the investigation of his wife Melinda Grier. Grier was general counsel at UO during the Bellotti payoff scandal. AAG David Leith ran the investigation, which declared she provided "deficient legal representation" and left then President Dave Frohnmayer off the hook. Now Frohnmayer's representing Mark Long against Kroger. Small town.

Jack Roberts has been writing a lot about Kroger in the Oregonian, he would be a good contender.

Earlier in Friday, the announcement was along the lines of Riddell has been re-assigned for no apparent reason.

Later in the day, it turned in to the (half-a55ed) resignation for deleting emails that should not have been deleted. (A total beginner's mistake, which says it was not a mistake at all.)

What I don't get is the way that Riddell is being set up and deflecting attentiaon away from DoE. In addition, the two whistle-blowers who are probably screwed as long as anyone in state gov has something to say about their careers.

Maybe he was over-agressive, but based on Jacquiss' account (I'd believe him before the rest of these clowns) there was a definite aura of stank about the whole deal between Mark Long and Cylvia.

"he would be a good contender."

How about Greg MacPherson again? Or have the public unions mortally wounded him?

Re: announcing on Friday.

There's a very good reason that they time this stuff to Fridays. Newspapers have a fixed amount of column-inches that they need to fill, and no one* reads newspapers on Saturday. So, they dump all the stories that they don't want anyone reading on a Friday afternoon, so that way the column-inches get divided equally between the stories, and no one* reads any of it anyway. Then, when Sunday comes around, they have a fresh news cycle filled with what the talking heads said on Meet the Press.

It's referred to as "taking out the trash" and it's been done for over a decade. One can learn quite a bit about what they don't want to tell anyone by paying attention on friday afternoon / saturday morning.

*may not actually be nobody, but a very diminished readership from a midweek or sunday release

"I cannot promise to never make mistakes."

Sigh. My Dad was an English major with a great sense of humor. He would have loved the way this illustrates the point.

Imagine what AG Dave Hunnicutt would do to the entrenched cabal.

Actual investigation where it is needed would ensue.

Starting with the PDC. TriMet and Metro.

There's something very rotten in Salem. Way more than one thing in fact. But, then, there has been for a very long time. And sadly it'll never be rooted out.

I don't see Ridell as a mere underling. He was hired out of Michael Schrunk's office, and if you look at Shrunk's involvement in high level ousters-Terry Gustafson and Julie Leonhardt, for example, you can see huge amouts of money chasing thin manufactured cases.

Riddell pushed the Gushwa case, not Kroger, and Riddell isn't the only high level problem that needs to be removed in that office. I am aware of an attorney involved in a major land scam who is now running a division in the AG's office. He is a front guy for a problem instigated by members of Name firms. That is how it can work; good AG office jobs as patronage positions.

It is organized crime and that is a specialty of Kroger's. He isn't perfect,but is capable of learning from his experiences and making hard choices, and I would vote to keep him in office.

I does seem that in business or government in the USA that whenever someone in charge takes "full responsiblity" they invariably do not. In Japan the tradition is that one takes full responsibility that they at the least resign, or committ seppuku (old school approach). Nevertheless they do take responsibility.

We can probably expect a blizzard of press releases in the coming weeks as Kroger trumpets obscure victories in hopes of distracting us from this big whiff. So look for important news about investigations into Department of Energy staff taking donuts without contributing to the donut fund, criminal charges against a DMV employee who spilled water on the office copier and didn't fess up, and sick-leave abuse by Wheeler County dog-catchers.

What hubris: I will not always be a perfect Attorney General.

If he had said "I will never be a perfect Attorney General," at least he might get a few points for humility. In Kroger's case, there is none.

I wonder if Kroger would have taken "full responsibility" had his office not accidentally leaked the damaging documents in the first place. My guess is that he would have continued to deny any wrongdoing on his or his staff's part for as long as he could. It was only when the press got the transcripts of the actual interviews, and asked outside legal experts whether they were appropriate (and they clearly weren't), that Kroger finally started to "take responsibility."

I'm not sure how it works for someone like Riddell. In his position as the head of the Criminal Divsion with the AG he most likely served at the pleasure of the AG, but as a career public servant he couldn't be outright fired without good cause and a right to a hearing of some sort. If he's been a DA for awhile, maybe he wants to stick it out for the retirement benefits or something, or just can't bring himself to earning his living defending the criminal element as a privately retained defense attorney. I don't see his prospects as being very bright for becoming the Multnomah County DA after all of this controversy.

I wonder who ended up with Kroger's "purloined" briefcase, and what was actually in it. Don't you?

Mojo: I do. Kroger seems to be a slower learner that I had at first hoped, but he hasn't really lived in Oregon that long.

And Usual Kevin: There is a criminal element inside and outside of the prosecutorial realm; anyone who has been watching Oregon for a whle knows that, I think.

aka Eliot Mess & The Unbelievables.

Kroger & Co., that is.

Meanwhile, what about Cylvia-gate?

I can't imagine a politician can have a disastrous run like this and not have opposition.

Future attempts to root out general corruption will have to go through a (finer) political filter.

I expect his next high profile move to be decidedly more partisan. He has to heal alliances within his base.

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