How the editor and publisher of a tiny Oregon weekly took on the state — and won

Les Zaitz‏ wasn't spoiling for a fight.

After busting frauds and needling scoundrels at The Oregonian for decades, Zaitz‏ was ready for a quiet semi-retirement on his ranch in Eastern Oregon.

And why not? His 1980 coverage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens was bronzed for posterity. His stories on lethal Mexican drug cartels earned him a finalist nod at the Pulitzer Prizes. He drew national attention for his reporting on the Oregon militia standoff.

When he retired last year from The Oregonian, he was looking forward to his new gig: Editor and publisher of The Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in a sleepy town nestled alongside a river in Eastern Oregon. He bought the paper in 2015 with his wife, herself the former editor of a weekly, and expected that running the paper would take up a couple of days each week.

"I was content for us to just do a good job covering local government and local crowd feeds and good profiles and teaching the reporters to kick up their game a notch," Zaitz‏ said.

It appears, however, that the news follows Zaitz‏ wherever he goes. Less than six months into his tenure as editor and publisher of The Malheur Enterprise, Zaitz and his two reporters stumbled onto a huge story. To solve that puzzle, Zaitz and his team would have to battle a state agency over the psychiatric records of a man suspected of killing his ex-wife and a passing motorist.

It all started shortly after Jan. 12, when Anthony Montwheeler was indicted for murder, kidnapping and assault after he abducted his wife, stabbed her to death in the front seat of his pickup and collided with the an oncoming car as he fled police.

It was big news for The Malheur Enterprise, and Zaitz‏ saw it as a teaching opportunity for his newsroom of two. Zaitz‏ and his wife bought the weekly to save it from going out of business, and he views the newspaper as a journalism laboratory.

So, they got to work. Zaitz‏ helped his reporters background the suspect, and the gumshoe work turned up unexpected details: Montwheeler had a criminal background stretching back 25 years; he previously kidnapped his former wife and 3-year-old son; and — most importantly — he was released by Oregon officials just 23 days before the latest crimes.

But Zaitz knew he was looking at one of the biggest stories of his career when the team discovered that Montwheeler had avoided a seven-year prison sentence by convincing a psychologist that he was mentally ill. Then, years after he was confined to a mental hospital, he was released by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board when he admitted to faking his mental illness.

"That, right away, raised my antenna," Zaitz said. "I thought, 'wait a minute, what's going on here?'"

After filing a request with the review board, Zaitz got ahold of an audio recording of the December hearing that set Montwheeler free. The state wouldn't release 15 records used as exhibits in Montwheeler's hearing, but the recording was enough for Zaitz to write a blockbuster story labeled "Deadly Decisions."

The article, which stretched for more than 3,000 words, laid it all out: A dangerous man let loose by state appointees after faking mental illness and living in a state hospital on taxpayer largesse. A massive gap in the Oregon criminal justice system. And two lives cut short because of it.

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But there was more. Zaitz wanted to know what was in those 15 records the review board wouldn't release. So, he wrote Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who on March 15 ordered the review board to release the records.

Then it got ugly. The review board defied the attorney general's order, citing privacy concerns. A week later, the board told The Malheur Enterprise to expect a lawsuit that would block access to the records. Then, it made good on its threat.

Zaitz didn't back down. He just got mad.

"Frankly, it really got my hackles up," he said. "It's just offensive to me that they would use the brute force of the state to try and slam our fingers in the file cabinet drawer to keep us away from the records."

Zaitz dug in for a fight. He wrote an appeal requesting reader support. He raised the alarm in the press. As he told the state agency, picking a fight with a tiny weekly was like "poking a stick in a badger hole."

Asked for comment last week, the review board told Poynter it would not comment on the pending litigation.

While the review board was silent, others began speaking up. The Seattle Times published a column in support of the Enterprise. Therese Bottomly, the director of news for The Oregonian, described it as a "David and Goliath fight" in an email to Poynter. Attorney Duane Bosworth, a First Amendment specialist, noted that the public's interest in the records was "extraordinarily high" in an email to Poynter. Daniel Bevarly, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, called the state's refusal to turn over the records "disturbing."

"This is a very interesting and disturbing case," Bevarly wrote. "It represents a troubling trend regarding the pursuit of public records."

Indeed, The Malheur Enterprise was among a growing number of publishers finding themselves battling for public records without the resources necessary to prevail. Nearly two-thirds of editors that responded to a survey from The Knight Foundation at the end of 2015 said that news organizations were no longer prepared to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms. When asked why, nearly 90 percent said money was the primary factor. (Full disclosure: The Knight Foundation funds Poynter's coverage of transformation in local news).

As it turns out, The Malheur Enterprise didn't have to fight for very long. On Tuesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown took the rare step of intervening in the case, calling the review board's lawsuit "plain wrong" and ordered the records released.

"No one requesting public records should be at risk of being sued by a state agency," she wrote. "I believe the public is best served by bringing this matter to an end now, rather than after a lengthy and costly litigation."

The Malheur Enterprise got the records on Tuesday. In an email to Poynter, Zaitz said the newspaper is now following the paper trail wherever it leads.

"This wasn't a fight we went looking for but it wasn't one we were going to run from either," Zaitz said. "Now, we'll carefully review the records to determine the history of the state's handling of Anthony Montwheeler — and pursue additional records as warranted."

Zaitz wasn't looking for a fight. But you can be sure he's going to finish it.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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