ATTORNEY GENERAL John Kroger is struggling to persuade the state legislature to fund two new units in his office to tackle civil rights violations and environmental crimes. But the man who prosecuted Enron and mafia bosses in New York is facing a turf war, budget issues, and some skepticism about his motives before he can clean up Oregon.
The Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) already tackles statewide civil rights violations relating to employment, housing, and public accommodations; its commissioner, Brad Avakian, has been fighting Kroger to defend his civil rights patch.
"My concern is that we don't use $1.5 million from the state's general fund to duplicate services," says Avakian.
Kroger says he wants to be able to go beyond BOLI's purview, not take over Avakian's cases. For example, he wants to prosecute multinational corporations engaged in discrimination across state lines. "Another example would be if a group of protesters illegally block access to a reproductive services clinic, we could get the clinic opened back up," he adds.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Floyd Prozanski says Kroger and Avakian failed to agree on a division of the turf at a meeting in his office in April, and that he thought Kroger had abandoned his plan to pursue civil rights prosecution as a result.
"There was this issue of duplication of services," says Prozanski, who, at the attorney general's request, agreed to pull amendments from Senate Bill 797 that proposed to set up a civil rights division in Kroger's office from Senate Bill 797 at the attorney general's request. "My understanding is that he didn't have it included because there wasn't a meeting of the minds between BOLI and the attorney general."
Regardless, Kroger is now pursuing funding for civil rights and environmental prosecutors in the Senate Ways and Means Committee—effectively doing an end run around Prozanski's group. Kroger disputes Avakian's $1.5 million projected cost for the prosecutors, and says he's hoping to secure $500,000 in federal funding for his office's environmental prosecution arm, leaving the state to pay just $300,000 for civil rights prosecution.
The state is currently facing a $3.8 billion budget hole, so Kroger says he's even prepared to make administrative cuts in his office to pay for the civil rights prosecutors from his existing budget, if necessary. On the environmental prosecution side, Kroger points out that environmental litigation could potentially bring in millions of dollars in damages for the state.
Kroger was quoted on the BlueOregon blog at a meeting of the Multnomah County Democrats Central Committee last week saying he was "really pissed off" about people allegedly blocking change on this issue. But Kroger says the article implied he was criticizing Democratic legislators when, in fact, he was just hoping to motivate people to push their legislators to support the plan.
"I'm trying to get people fired up to go down to Salem," he says.
Behind the scenes, Kroger has also been accused of political grandstanding so that he can bolster an eventual run for the governor's office with a series of high-profile prosecutions.
"I think whenever you try to do anything in politics, there are people who will try to interpret it cynically," Kroger responds. "That's one of the reasons I've been very unequivocal in my statements that I am not running for governor."
Regardless, those who stand to gain from the spat are pleased that more attention is being paid to civil rights prosecution in Oregon.
"I actually think there is kind of a power play going on here," says civil rights advocate and former State Legislator Jo Ann Bowman. "But it doesn't exactly hurt my feelings that we have two white men arguing about who has more authority to enforce civil rights."
Bowman says she's more interested in holding Kroger accountable if he does manage to secure civil rights prosecution powers. Kroger was due to appear on Bowman's KBOO radio show late last week, but didn't show up.
"He didn't show, he didn't call," says Bowman. "A cynic would say it was because he was scared of some of the questions I was going to ask him about whether he plans to sue police departments who have been proven to carry out racial profiling."
Kroger says he has since apologized to Bowman for not showing up, and that he got caught on a call with his wedding planner. On racial profiling, he says he is unsure whether his office would have legal authority to sue police departments, but that it is important for his office to work with police departments to ensure that racial profiling is not happening.
Despite being stood up, Bowman says she continues to support Kroger's effort to secure funding for civil rights prosecutors, adding that Avakian's civil rights record is "pretty poor."