Tuesday, April 19, 2011

John Kroger's administration

John Kroger's administration: Holding our public officials to a higher standard

Guest column published Monday, April 18, 2011
by Joshua Marquis and Steve Atchison

Guest columnist Jack Roberts usually gets it right, but his attack on Attorney General John Kroger misses the point by a mile.

Roberts claims that the increased prosecution (400 percent) of misconduct cases under Kroger's administration has been manufactured to pave Kroger's way to higher office. Ambition in statewide office is not exactly uncommon, although the last attorney general to seek higher office was Dave Frohnmayer, who had the support of every elected district attorney in Oregon when he ran for governor in 1990 (and lost).

Kroger faces re-election as attorney general next year. One reason he got so much support from elected DAs in 2008 is that he is a career prosecutor, not a career politician, and the first such to run for Oregon attorney general in living memory. That brings a different, less reverential attitude to the job, an important attribute for handling a portfolio that runs from consumer protection to monitoring charities to organized crime, and not infrequently to picking up cases for local prosecutors who have a conflict or simply lack the resources to take on a particularly complex financial investigation.

Investigations do not always lead to prosecution, nor should they. Several of Kroger's successes have resulted in officials forfeiting their jobs and pay after they were caught bending if not breaking the law. A deputy district attorney in Newport used his position to try to get his child-support clients to engage in sexual activities with him; he was prosecuted. The mayor of West Linn was caught lying; Kroger's office went after her -- and won.

Kroger's strong belief in transparency has meant the press and public have been able to read the investigation documents and decide for themselves, even when a case has not led to a prosecution. There has been some criticism of this practice, but the facts are put out there for everyone to see. The easy thing for a prosecutor to do -- and particularly for the attorney general -- is to pass on a case and figure that the hassle some public employee had to endure at the hands of a newspaper or maybe even the Ethics Commission is enough. That's not holding people accountable; and the Ethics Commission cannot levy criminal penalties. The people's lawyer is ultimately the attorney general.

As local prosecutors we are accountable to our communities both through elections and the annual budget process. The attorney general likewise faces election every four years and must convince the Legislature to fund his budget.

As prosecutors who almost never seek any other office, we can tell you the surest way not to make friends in important places is to aggressively pursue cases where powerful or well-known people may be involved. Kroger is not part of the old-boys' club. He is an Oregonian by choice, having bicycled out here a decade ago after working as a federal prosecutor in New York, and that may make some people nervous.

Oregon is not New Jersey or Illinois, thank goodness, but we are not as pure as we might like to think. Kroger has brought in top prosecutors from the place where 98 percent of criminal prosecution is done -- local district attorneys' offices -- and he has been comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted.

As prosecutors for the people, we believe that Oregonians are in fact better protected with John Kroger as attorney general. Perhaps a better title for Jack Roberts' commentary would have been: "What's wrong with holding those in public office to a higher standard."

Joshua Marquis is Clatsop County district attorney. Steve Atchison is Columbia County district attorney.

click here for the column as printed in The Oregonian