SALEM — The week in Oregon politics began and ended with Ginger McCall.
McCall, the state’s first public records advocate, announced her sudden resignation Monday, Sept. 9, citing undue influence from Gov. Kate Brown’s office. “Unfortunately, in a series of meetings that I had with the staff of governors office, I was informed that they were my supervisors that it was my job to represent the governor’s interest on the public records advisory council, but that I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone,” she told Portland’s KGW News. “It felt like it was an affront to the transparency position of the office, and it also made me feel like I was put in an unethical position.”
McCall has worked as both a government open records attorney and an attorney for the requester community in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. Prior to her work in government, she was the Associate Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a public interest research center, where she directed the Center’s Open Government Program. McCall graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh and received her law degree from Cornell Law School.
“I will tell you that the clear consensus from the public, the marching orders that we have, are to shore up the independence of this office,” said McCall. “And if we fail to do that, then I am glad that I will no longer serve, because I don’t think this can be an effective office or effective council if we don’t act on it.”
The office of public records advocate serves as a mediator in resolving disputes between requestors and public bodies, in addition to providing education and training on public records.
Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities who sits on the council, advocated for a third party review of McCall’s departure and the circumstances of her departure.
McCall described backchannel attempts at influencing her work and urging from the governor to be a member of the “(Department of Administrative Services) team.”
In a series of records released this week, McCall detailed her interactions with governor’s staffers over the question of to whom she reported, how she sought an opinion from the Department of Justice on the matter, and her efforts trying to get more money from the legislature for the office of the advocate.
“The advocate needs to be able to zealously advocate for proposals that will improve transparency,” McCall said. “Regardless of whether or not those proposals forward the interests of an elected official.”
The week’s events have been a stress test for one of Brown’s ostensible tenets: transparency.
Spokespeople for Brown did not respond by deadline to a list of written questions from the Oregon Capital Bureau Friday. They provided a previous statement clarifying spokesman Chris Pair’s claim that McCall’s allegations were false.
“It was in response to the general allegation made in the resignation letter to Governor Brown that the governor’s office did not share the view that the Public Records Advocate should operate with a high degree of independence,” Pair wrote in an email. “The governor’s office does share that view.”
Brown and McCall met on Wednesday, Sept. 11.
“It was a brief, but friendly meeting,” McCall said. “She asked me for my thoughts on the independence issue and what could be done, and I proposed a couple of just initial reforms that I thought would be helpful, but that the council’s going to be meeting and I hope that the council will come up with more robust ideas.”
McCall said she thought it would be “great” if Brown committed to making changes to address the problem.
The scandal comes as Brown is facing trust issues with voters. Simultaneous recall efforts are nearing the finish line in their mission to gather roughly 300,000 signatures to give voters another shot at approving Brown.
The groups’ organizers have said Brown has disregarded the will of Oregonians in pushing policies like new carbon emissions regulation, giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants and a new business tax used to fund public education.
Brown’s dealings with McCall fit right into that, said Oregon Republican Chairman Bill Currier, who is leading one of the recall efforts. Currier said he was at one of the recall booths Thursday night, Sept. 12, in Mt. Angel. “There were a number of people there who mentioned the public records debacle,” he said.
Currier said he has heard of an uptick in interest for signing the petition this week, following the news stories about the public records issues. How much of that is a response to the story is unclear, he said, as the effort has started to break more into urban areas.
The incident has also raised questions for petition-signers about Brown’s recent appointment of her general counsel, Misha Isaak, to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Two complaints about Isaak have been lodged with the Oregon State Bar. In the most recent, on September 11, conservative podcaster for 104.3 FM KSLM’s Political Coffee and former Oregon legislator (R–Sublimity) Jeff Kropf, asked the Oregon State Bar to investigate whether Isaak committed misconduct by allegedly pressuring Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall to stop pushing for certain public records reforms and instead secretly advance the governor’s policy interests. The Oregon Territory chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists called on Brown to rescind Isaak’s appeals court appointment.
Isaak was recommended for the position by a panel of senior justices that included David V. Brewer, a senior justice at the Oregon Supreme Court. “Misha Isaak has practiced law at the highest levels, on matters of great importance to the State,” Brewer said. “His intelligence, work ethic, compassion, and knowledge about state government will enrich the Oregon Court of Appeals.”
Isaak is an adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark Law School. He came to the Governor’s Office in 2015 from Perkins Coie LLP, where he was a litigation attorney specializing in civil rights and business dispute. He was rated as one of the top 40 under 40 LGBT lawyers in the United States by the National LGBT Bar Association. He graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Reed College.
The governor’s office has looked into whether judicial appointments can be rescinded. But no announcement has been made. Isaaks is slated to begin his tenure on the Court of Appeals on November 1.