Friday, March 20, 2015

Oregonian's account of ex-Gov. Kitzhaber's final days in office

The Oregonian has a gripping story about the twists and turns of John Kitzhaber's last days in office, sourced largely from unnamed advisors. It provides a detailed, behind the scenes peek at why Kitzhaber went back and forth about whether to resign from office. Not surprisingly, there was a sharp divide between the political advisors, who felt that there was no choice but to resign, and the lawyers, who felt that an offer to resign was a valuable bargaining chip to use with state and federal investigators:
Rival factions of his team contributed to his uncertainty with compelling but contradictory advice. For months heading to the end, his political advisers were increasingly pointed: The love of his life was political poison and would bring him down unless he distanced himself from her and disclosed everything about her business affairs. 
The attorneys argued just as adamantly that transparency was a luxury the governor could no longer afford.  Above all, the attorneys told him, don't quit. His job was his most important bargaining chip for likely settlement negotiations of ethical and perhaps criminal accusations.
Last month, Willamette Week published a story based in part on leaked emails between Kitzhaber and his lawyers (the same lawyers giving the advice in the quoted paragraph above), raising a question of whether the paper was relying on attorney-client privileged materials. This portion of the Oregonian story, on the other hand, appears to be sourced entirely through interviewed subjects. Unless the sources were Kitzhaber or his lawyers, it would mean that someone else was privy to those communications between the ex-Governor and his legal counsel.

This would mean that those particular discussions appear to be not privileged, because either the lawyers were providing this advice to Kitzhaber in front of other persons, or they provided it to him in private, and either they or he subsequently shared it.

ORS 40.225 (Oregon Evidence Rule 503) defines a "confidential communication" as:
[A] communication not intended to be disclosed to third persons other than those to whom disclosure is in furtherance of the rendition of professional legal services to the client or those reasonably necessary for the transmission of the communication.
Typically, the "in furtherance of the rendition of professional legal services" would mean paralegals, legal assistants, law clerks, or other non-lawyers working for the lawyer. "[T]hose reasonably necessary for the transmission of the communication" might be people similarly situated to the client, except instead of the relationship of furthering the providing of legal advice, is limited to the "transmission of the communication." It's hard to see how political advisors would fit into that category.

Courts can be sticklers about the need to protect the confidentiality of attorney-client communications. This came up during Martha Stewart's prosecution for false statements and obstruction of justice, when she forwarded an email from her attorney to her daughter. Although she was ultimately able to prevent the government from introducing that email into evidence because it was ruled to be attorney work product*, the trial judge agreed that the attorney-client privilege had been lost by sending it to her daughter: "Stewart's June 23 e-mail to Nussbaum was clearly protected by her attorney-client privilege [snip] until she waived that privilege by forwarding a copy of the e-mail to her daughter...."

* Work product is a related kind of protection than the attorney-client privilege, but somewhat broader in scope. The attorney-client privilege is essentially inviolate, whereas work product can, on rare occasions, be overcome. However, work product can be shared more freely than privileged materials.

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