Here’s to the tiny, two-reporter newspaper that’s waging one of the most important but little-discussed fights of our times: The government wants to do its business in secret, and increasingly there’s no press left to stop them.
Les Zaitz says he’s got more pressing matters to attend to than being sued by the government.
“We’re out here trying to cover the onion harvest,” he told me by phone Friday from deep eastern Oregon. “We’ve got Easter egg rolls coming up.”
Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, a 1,400-circulation weekly in Vale, Oregon. The town’s an old stop on the Oregon Trail up against the Idaho border. The paper is one of those little community weeklies that have been struggling all over the country, victims of tectonic shifts in tastes and business models.
Now this one’s also got $400-an-hour taxpayer-financed attorneys to reckon with.
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The tiny weekly was sued this past week by a state agency. Not because the paper did anything wrong, but because it’s pursuing public records in a horrific murder case of intense interest in the town. The government wants to shield the records, and make the paper pay its court costs and any “additional relief as this court deems just and proper.”
“They want to hide these public records from the public, which I’m used to dealing with,” Zaitz said. “But what really got me is that they want us to pay them for hiding the records.
“We’re this teensy paper in the poorest county in Oregon. I’m faced with potentially bankrupting us over this.”
This is sadly becoming common, which is why I’m highlighting it. With the press weakening, it’s as if governments both big and small can smell blood in the water. Small papers especially have almost no resources to take on cases like this (though I think here they’ve poked the wrong small-town newspaper editor).
This case started in January, when a released psychiatric patient kidnapped and killed his ex-wife. After a police chase, he crashed head-on into an SUV about 12 miles outside Vale, killing the local driver and injuring his wife.
Not many homicides come across the police scanner at the Malheur Enterprise. After poking around, Zaitz, 62, a former investigative reporter for The Oregonian, uncovered one of the most astonishing stories of his 40-year career.
It turned out the alleged murderer, Tony Montwheeler, was a medical con man. He had a long record of kidnapping and other violent acts. But he successfully avoided prison for 20 years by pretending to be insane.
He got free housing and sometimes stints in hospitals, costing taxpayers millions as he moved around committing more crimes, all under the state’s supervision.
When the state realized he wasn’t mentally ill — that he was just faking it — they simply released him from supervision. This was despite warnings from a state psychologist that he was dangerous and likely to target family members. The public was not warned of his release.
“Our stance is, they owe the public an explanation for what happened,” Zaitz said. “They won’t talk about it, so we have no choice but to look at the paper trail.”
In the lawsuit against the Malheur Enterprise, which has only two reporters, the state agency, called the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board, argued that releasing the records would violate the patient’s medical privacy. But earlier, the Oregon attorney general had ordered most of the records made public due to the unique circumstances of the case — namely that the patient had faked his illness, and then went on to wreak havoc in the community.
These battles over records are daily in the journalism business. But newspapers now often can’t afford paying the fees, let alone weather an extended legal fight.
“They’ve hired a private firm, with the lead attorney billing $400 an hour,” Zaitz said. “How am I supposed to compete with that?”
He’s considering setting up a legal-defense fund, but the bigger issue is the balance of power is shifting rapidly — toward more secrecy. The Obama administration for example, after promising to be “the most transparent in history,” instead set records for denying access to public files. After declaring the press “the enemy of the American people,” the Trump administration is unlikely to be an improvement.
“This should be very troubling for Americans,” Zaitz says. “These are the public’s records after all.”
Oh, and the medical con man? In the new court case, his attorney has said his defense against the latest charges is going to be that he was insane.