Resignation of Oregon public records advocate stirs doubts
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown came to office pledging greater government transparency, and in 2017 pushed the Legislature to create a first-ever public records advocate.
Now, the abrupt resignation of advocate Ginger McCall, who accused Brown’s general counsel of undue influence and unethical behavior, has blown up into a debacle for the governor.
It has raised doubts about whether the Democrat is serious about government transparency, given ammunition to minority Republicans in the Legislature, and led to demands that she rescind her appointment of general counsel Misha Isaak to the state Court of Appeals.
Before her official departure on Oct. 11, McCall had a “friendly but brief” meeting Wednesday with Brown. A representative from a Washington, D.C.-based group that seeks to expose abuse of power and protect whistleblowers listened on speakerphone at McCall’s request, she said.
In a draft memo obtained through a public records request, McCall urged her successors to “zealously defend the independence of this office.”
Isaak had allegedly tried to make McCall a cheerleader for the governor, while insisting she keep that secret from the public and the Public Records Advisory Council that she chairs.
He and another Brown staffer had also admonished McCall for seeking to ensure funding for her office and for publishing a report, without their vetting, that underscored obstacles to fulfilling public records requests, including a lack of standard fees and the existence of more than 550 exemptions.
McCall’s resignation announcement on Monday exposed the tensions.
She told Brown in a letter: “If the Advocate were to represent the interests of an elected official while allowing the Council and the public to believe that she is acting independently, that would be both unethical and particularly inappropriate for an office that was founded to promote transparency.”
The governor’s office then sent contradictory messages in response.
Chris Pair, Brown’s communications director, quickly issued a statement calling McCall’s allegations “untrue.”
But McCall then produced memos showing Isaak had wrongly insisted he was her boss and told her she was uninformed and should be less ambitious.
After McCall released the documents, Brown issued a statement Monday night saying she was surprised by the allegations, which she did not dispute, and blamed her staff.
“It appears this is a situation where staff were conflicted between the goals of serving the governor and promoting the cause of transparency,” the governor said.
“It’s regrettable that Ms. McCall did not reach out to the governor to share her thoughts and concerns,” added Kate Kondayen, a Brown spokeswoman.
Wednesday marked only the second time Brown and McCall had met, other than casual encounters, since she started the job in 2018, McCall said. A job interview that included Brown had been done on Skype. McCall previously lived in Washington, D.C., where she worked on Freedom of Information Act requests for the federal government and a private group.
In an interview with a reporter in her small office Wednesday, located just five blocks from the governor’s office in the Oregon State Capitol, McCall said she felt she had no direct access to Brown. McCall said she didn’t even have Brown’s email address to send her resignation and wound up searching for it on Google.
Isaak had been present in McCall’s only other in-person meeting with Brown, and she said she felt he was an impediment to her confiding in the governor.
“The idea of sitting in a room, demanding an in-person one on-one-meeting (with the governor), and then saying something about this conflict with her general counsel, who is hired to represent her interests, that did not seem like a viable idea,” McCall said.
Isaak did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The Public Records Advisory Council, or PRAC, meets Friday to consider the circumstances of McCall’s resignation and proposals to ensure independence for the advocate.
“The council’s duty is to the citizens of Oregon to provide for transparent government. PRAC needs to speak forcefully to that duty,” tweeted council member Les Zaitz, publisher and editor of the Malheur Enterprise.
He urged Brown to “participate in some fashion.”
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky