Imperfect

Misha Isaak’s No-Fault Reputation

Last week, in a Christmas eve news dump, two interesting Oregon stories dropped into the public consciousness: The allegations of inappropriate conduct by former Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall against Misha Isaak, Governor Kate Brown’s former top lawyer, were declared meritless; and the Oregon Supreme Court conditionally granted former Springfield police officer Neil Halttunen his law license, after a three-year campaign against him by the Oregon State Bar.

At first glance, the two stories seem unconnected. But a deeper excavation reveals a common denominator: Misha Isaak, Brown’s former top lawyer who “resigned” that position in February 2020 after a botched effort to have himself appointed to the Court of Appeals.

Both stories reveal much about the politically-driven attorney in-crowd in Oregon that Isaak epitomizes. But mostly both stories reflect upon Isaak, his outsized ambition, and his singular concern for his own reputation, often at the expense of others.

In August 2019, Brown suddenly announced Isaak’s appointment to a vacant spot on the Court of Appeals, without prior notice or the usual public call for qualified applicants. Predictably, and avoidably, there was unrest about Isaak’s appointment and Brown’s lack of transparency in making it.

Days later, Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall resigned her position, citing political pressure and “abuse of authority” by Isaak, and personal disrespect toward her, which she identified as both “sexist and demeaning.”

The fallout was swift and great: Eight days after McCall’s resignation, Isaak “declined” the seat at the appellate court, braying that his reputation was “beyond ethical reproach.” However, one of the many things Misha Isaak does not get to be the judge of is his own reputation.¹

Isaak also expressed that he was “not willing to accept further damage” to his self-proclaimed irreproachable reputation. In retrospect, that statement can be read as a threat — and he made good on it.

At some point thereafter, Brown engaged a prominent law firm, Stoel Rives, to conduct an “independent” investigation into the mess — at what has surely been great expense² to Oregon’s taxpayers — to placate Isaak’s bruised ego and rehabilitate his tarnished reputation. This shovel-ready project was not exactly the stimulus that Oregon voters have been crying for during the pandemic.

The final report, written by Brenda Baumgart, was released a week ago. It does not instill confidence as the work of a neutral investigator, but instead reads as though Isaak may have written it himself, or was at least allowed substantial input. It should not be regarded as “findings.”

Among its most obvious defects is the biased tone saturating the report, which rushes to minimize anything that could remotely be construed as negative about Isaak’s conduct, while exaggerating the most minor of points negative to McCall — who was not personally interviewed for the report. In fact, Baumgart did not interview anybody outside of Brown’s staff or Isaak’s close circle of supporters, failing even to speak to McCall’s deputy.

Additionally, Baumgart fails to disclose all of the material she reviewed in the course of her investigation, leaving open the certainty that she examined materials that were secret or off the record — the antithesis of a transparent proceeding. Baumgart could not have been concerned about her word count: The document is 57 turgid and monotonous pages. One more paragraph or two enumerating the material and documents she reviewed would have elevated confidence in her work.

But the central defect in the report is the extreme and repetitive lengths to which it goes to establish that McCall’s work product was not “high-quality,” and that McCall herself was inadequate, and failed to understand “how things work” in Oregon government — i.e. was not an insider. The negative portrayal of McCall that absolutely permeates the report is based almost exclusively on interviews with Isaak and his former deputy, and discredits Baumgart’s claim that “McCall’s job performance” was “well outside the scope of this investigation.”

Supplied with that blame-shifting narrative, Isaak defends himself against McCall’s reports of his demeaning, condescending, and sexist conduct by trotting out a handful of subordinates and colleagues to vouch for his “tone and delivery” to Baumgart. That tone and deliver is described here as “matter of fact but with a slight smile on his face; very friendly; not contentious.” All of this amplifies Isaak’s basic defense that McCall was oversensitive, implying that his own perfect conduct was one more thing about how things work in Oregon government that she just didn’t understand. And while it is nice for Isaak that those in his inner circle vouched for his professionalism toward them, it certainly doesn’t prove that he wasn’t sexist and condescending toward McCall.³

Perhaps most startlingly, Isaak deflects attention from his own conduct by questioning whether McCall’s resignation was a “politically motivated effort to derail his [judicial] appointment and negatively impact his career.” Isaak simply cannot fathom that the whole affair was a direct consequence of his own behavior. Instead it has to be some nefarious conspiracy against him or a bizarre belief that Ginger McCall would arrange her life specifically according to its effect on Misha Isaak.⁴

McCall provided Baumgart with the notes she made at the time of the incident — which she also made public immediately upon her resignation. Unfortunately, Baumgart fully bought into Isaak’s narrative and excuses, developed well after the fact. In other words, McCall raised her concerns about Isaak’s conduct to his face, after a reasonable period of time, and brought her receipts. In contrast, Isaak circled his wagons.

These are among many problems with the report.⁵ Ginger McCall summed them up succinctly to me, saying, “I trust that the people of Oregon can observe the source of funding and the faulty methodology and see this report for what it is.”

The other story in last week’s news dump is about Neil Halttunen, who finally got his law license after a three-year character review.

Halttunen had resigned from the Springfield Police Department during a 2012 internal investigation into allegations that he engaged in inappropriate conduct with women he had met in the course of his duties.

In an effort to rebuild his life after that low point, Halttunen began psychotherapy the following year, confronting myriad problems such as the emotional toll police work had taken on him, his own harmful patterns of thinking, and his unhealthy views about sex. During his treatment, Halttunen was inspired by another former police officer to get his law degree.

Halttunen attended Willamette University College of Law, where according to all reports he did well, mentoring new students and winning an award for his work on behalf of a disabled veteran. He also went to work as a certified law student for a Dallas law firm, defending misdemeanor charges against indigent clients.

After graduation, Halttunen passed the bar exam in July 2017, but was denied admission in early 2018 by decision of the Board of Bar Examiners — during the height of the #MeToo movement. The decision to deny bar admission to Halttunen was attributed to his failure to demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the Board, that he was “currently of good moral character.”

One of the Board members directly involved in Halttunen’s case was Misha Isaak.

The denial, by Isaak and the Board, of Halttunen’s law license, became a “contested admission” before the Oregon Supreme Court, where a thousand pages of material was submitted for their consideration. Like Baumgart’s report, the record of the Board’s proceedings is hard to look at — but some problems practically jump off the page.

Seventeen witnesses appeared in person to testify as to Halttunen’s good (and reformed) moral character, including a former Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, The Honorable Paul De Muniz, and several witnesses who had known Halttunen since his time as a police officer, when the incidents occurred. Astonishingly, the Board concluded that Halttunen’s “prior misconduct is so significant that his evidence of reformation is irrelevant.”

While hearsay testimony is generally not admissible in court, one of the Board’s witnesses was allowed to raise hearsay allegations of misconduct against Halttunen, which the Board’s special investigator “was directed to follow up on.”

Halttunen was also accused by the Board of trying to retaliate against another of its witnesses after Halttunen provided video of their testimony to a Springfield detective, “to determine whether [the witness] was untruthful during the hearing.”

There are many other problems with the Board’s proceeding against Halttunen, but one that immediately comes to mind is Isaak’s questioning of Halttunen during the proceedings. Isaak was unusually fixated on the number of women Halttunen had slept with, whether or not the relationships were inappropriate or had anything to do with the proceedings.

After three years in which his reputation was under such scrutiny, Halttunen prevailed on Christmas eve, and was granted his law license by unanimous decision of the Supreme Court. The decision states, “We are satisfied in this case that [Halttunen] has demonstrated reformation sufficiently to qualify for conditional⁵ admission to the Oregon State Bar.” The Court also placed “particular weight” on Halttunen’s numerous character references, whose strength “the [B]oard was unpersuaded by.” The hearsay allegations against Halttunen are addressed in a footnote, where the Court states that they “can raise due process concerns.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Court definitively shot down the Board’s allegation that Halttunen had tried to retaliate against their witness, tersely stating “We do not share the board’s skepticism.”

All in all, the decision delivered negative feedback to Isaak and the Board and even the Oregon State Bar: Their work product was not “high-quality.” The news was given to them as a matter of fact. There may have even been a slight smile on someone’s face. Very friendly. Not contentious.

Moreover, unlike Baumgart’s report, the Supreme Court decision for Halttunen constituted actual findings, was produced by salaried professionals under the existing state budget, and actually settles the matter.

Which leaves Misha Isaak.

This is a man who does not seem focused on integrity, but rather the perception of integrity. He wants to enjoy the reputation that comes with that perception.

In reality, reputation comes from actual deeds. It doesn’t come from screaming about how good one’s reputation is. Nor does it come from a faulty report based almost exclusively on one’s own assertions. And it certainly doesn’t come at the expense of other peoples’ reputations — as if good reputations are in such short supply that not everyone can have one.

Isaak has maintained that his own reputation is beyond reproach even while arguing that Neil Halttunen’s is beyond redemption. For their part, Halttunen and Ginger McCall are now beyond Isaak’s reach — and if a man such as Isaak is compelled to burn through others’ reputations, using them as fuel to keep his own flickering torch aglow, that is a costly project that can never be truly settled.

¹ Just like one does not get to decide how perfect their reputation is, one also does not get to decide how cool one is, or how smart. The free market sorts that out.

² It is worth noting that the law firm hired to conduct the investigation, Stoel Rives, has both contributed to Governor Brown’s campaign committee, and been paid by it.

³ With every turn of the page of this report, I kept expecting to see the suggestion that McCall should smile more, or something about her outfit.

⁴ People who think like this — including clinical narcissists — are often the ones engaged in nefarious conspiracies against others.

⁵ One of the other glaring problems in the report is that one of Isaak’s witnesses, Joe O’Leary, does not recall a conversation that Isaak seems to be pushing as a key point, responsible for his comment to McCall about calling a reporter and mischaracterizing his comments. Interestingly, this defense makes Isaak seem politically unsavvy. Read the report and see if you come to the same conclusion.

⁶ One of the conditions placed on Mr. Halttunen’s bar license is that he “refrain from pursuing a sexual or romantic relationship with any current or former client” for the term of four years. While such relationships with current clients are against the bar’s ethical rules, the “former client” part could be viewed as unconstitutional.

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