E-mail probe doesn’t pass smell test

By Observer editorial March 31, 2011 10:33 am
The Oregon Department of Justice’s investigation into allegations that a Union County employee may have deleted e-mails between the county and Horizon Wind leaves more questions than answers. Sean Riddell, the DOJ’s chief counsel, sent a letter to District Attorney Tim Thompson last week saying the investigation had not found enough evidence to support claims that Planning Director Hanley Jenkins had deleted e-mails pertaining to the Antelope Ridge Wind Farm, and therefore it considers the matter closed.

E-mail correspondence to and from government entities is considered to be a public document, and destruction of public records is a violation of the law. Union County has been officially mum on the allegations since they were first made last fall by Dennis Wilkinson, chairman of the anti-wind farm group Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley.

Wilkinson claims a “whistleblower’’ in the planning department saw Jenkins delete the e-mails. Wilkinson also says Commissioner Steve McClure told him that Jenkins admitted to McClure that he had deleted e-mails. Interestingly, the DOJ apparently did not question either the whistleblower, McClure or Wilkinson.

What kind of an investigation is that? It’s no wonder Wilkinson has asked the DOJ to reopen the probe.

But just as important, it seems, is Union County’s response to this whole matter. Officials have chosen to hide behind the excuse that it’s a personnel matter that they can’t talk about. The fact is, if the allegation’s true, it’s also a criminal matter. As the state’s public records manual says, “It is a crime to knowingly destroy, conceal, remove or falsely alter a public record.’’

Union County owes the public an explanation about what went on. It also needs to explain what its policies are in regard to e-mails sent to and from county computers, and what steps are being taken to ensure that county employees are aware of the law and what the consequences are when the law is broken. Too, it wouldn’t hurt if the whistleblower came forward to tell what he or she knows.

As for the DOJ, it needs to take accusations against public officials seriously. Its investigations should reflect that it does, not leave more questions than answers.