Gov. Brown Rewards Agency Staff for Crafting Smear Campaign
The Oregon Health Authority crafted a smear campaign against a Portland-area health care provider. Governor Brown hired one of the agency staff responsible. Why is she rewarding bad behavior instead of holding her administration accountable?
Oregon Health Authority staffers who crafted widely denounced PR plan escape consequences
By Saul Hubbard • The Register-Guard •
Gov. Kate Brown asked Oregon Health Authority Director Lynne Saxton to resign last week after the draft of an aggressive OHA public relations plan to vilify a Portland-area health care provider became public.
But the governor chose not to take or request immediate action against the health authority’s top communications employees and lobbyists who in January actually crafted the plan, emails released under Oregon’s public records law show.
In fact, Brown hired one of those employees, Courtney Warner Crowell, for her own team earlier this year for an economic development position in Eastern Oregon.
Crowell started working for Brown’s office in mid-July, after The Portland Tribune first reported on the controversial communications plan and while the newspaper was appealing a public records request denial for the full document.
The widely denounced OHA public relations plan called for the OHA to try to plant negative news stories about FamilyCare, a coordinated care organization providing Medicaid coverage with which the OHA was in a legal dispute over funding.
The PR plan sought to have OHA staff try to portray FamilyCare as being “more concerned with the bottom line and increasing revenues than the health of Oregonians” to state lawmakers and reporters.
The plan also called for promoting FamilyCare’s competitor, Health Share, by potentially finding an HIV patient to complain about FamilyCare being unable to “provide the care they need.”
Crowell is a longtime Oregon Democratic political staffer, having worked for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley between 2010 and 2016 and for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski before that.
She’s now working as a “regional solutions” coordinator for Brown in seven Eastern Oregon counties, with an annual salary of $97,092. The position involves working on local economic priorities. The governor’s office hired Crowell on April 27; she started in the new position on July 10.
Brown on Monday defended Crowell’s hiring.
“The draft communications plan was developed by staff at the direction of Lynne Saxton,” Brown’s spokesman, Chris Pair, said. “Saxton has taken full responsibility for this decision and subsequently resigned as a consequence of it.”
Crowell was the lead staffer charged with drafting the plan by both Saxton and OHA lobbyist BethAnne Darby, the publicly released emails show.
Crowell submitted a first draft of the plan to Darby on Jan. 20, without some of the more controversial elements.
Darby, a former top lobbyist for Oregon’s largest teachers union, responded, in part, that the OHA’s “goal will be to create enough information buzz that it causes the Legislature to question what (FamilyCare) is trying to sell.”
During the previous legislative session, Darby continued, FamilyCare “was able to build a great deal of legislative empathy and thus pressure on the agency, until we started communicating our own perspective.”
The following week, Crowell submitted an updated draft, proposing more aggressive attacks on FamilyCare, to Darby and OHA communications director Robb Cowie.
Saxton seemed initially receptive, describing the plan in an email as “a good start.”
But after it became public, Saxton distanced herself from the draft, describing it as “completely unacceptable” in letters of apology to agency staff and to the CCOs before she resigned.
Coordinated care organizations manage the Oregon Health Plan, Oregon’s version of Medicaid, in different regions of the state. The Oregon Health Plan provides health care to low-income and disabled people. In Lane County, the CCO is Trillium.
Saxton repeatedly connected the contents of the draft plan to unnammed employees, not herself.
“OHA is made up of people who can make mistakes, as our staff did when they were thinking out loud in the midst of an adversarial litigation process,” she wrote to OHA employees.
“Going forward, I have instructed my staff to refrain from communications planning that exceeds the boundaries of a state agency’s responsibility to the public trust,” Saxton added in her letters to CCOs.
Asked to clarify the conflicting statements, Saxton on Monday would say only that she “directed staff to draft a communications plan.”
Saxton’s last day at the OHA is Aug. 31. The governor’s office has not yet outlined its hiring plan to replace her.
Asked about the governor’s decision to seek only Saxton’s resignation, not those of any high-level OHA staffers, Pair said Brown “expects the next director of OHA to operate the agency with a commitment to transparency, integrity and efficiency.”
“Gov. Brown will direct the incoming director to evaluate all existing staff according to these standards,” he added.