Oregon secretary of state privately shares dire medical news with leaders

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson privately notified top Oregon officials earlier this summer that he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and fatal form of cancer, according to two state executives.

The Republican from Central Point is first in line to succeed the governor.

Richardson declined comment and didn’t respond to written questions sent to his office and personal email accounts.

Debra Royal, Richardson’s chief of staff, responded on his behalf to confirm that Richardson called officials, but said he didn’t disclose to them the type of cancer he had, an assertion specifically disputed by state executives. Royal said she was in the room during several of the calls in June.

She subsequently clarified that that Richardson had “signed off” on her responses. She declined to answer when directly asked whether Richardson has glioblastoma.

Royal said Richardson recently assessed how his illness affects his ability to do his job, and plans to stay on.

“He is fully committed to the leadership role the people of Oregon hired him to do, and he is honored to serve,” she said.

Five months ago, Richardson publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor but has continually declined to provide any details about his medical condition.

Royal said Richardson has not ruled out any treatment options, and he is happy with the treatment he is currently receiving. She declined to elaborate.

But over the course of the summer, Richardson told select state officials that talking with his family and doctors, he decided to forego the standard treatment of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, according to two state executives.

The two state executives talked independently on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. The staffers agreed to disclose the information because of an evident decline in Richardson’s workload as the general election loomed.

One ranking official specifically disputed the denial from Richardson’s staff to deny the secretary of state shared information on the kind of cancer he was facing.

One high-level staffer said that given Richardson’s public statements on the importance of transparency, there was an assumption by at least one elected official that Richardson confided in that he would make a statement explaining the diagnosis and his chosen course of treatment, but that never happened.

Public records obtained from Richardson’s office show in 46 days in September and October, Richard sent 37 emails from his office account. That’s an average of about one per workday.

Prior to disclosing his diagnosis, Richardson’s schedule was robust, often having 10 or more items scheduled in a day, with the occasional light day mixed in every week or two. In September and October, with an important election nearing, Richardson’s schedule typically listed two to four appointments per day. Nearly all were meetings with his executive staff.

Occasionally, Richardson’s schedule shows non-staff meetings, though it couldn’t be established how many of those meetings took place. On Oct. 16, Richardson’s schedule shows he was scheduled to attend the state Land Board meeting, but the day before he announced he wouldn’t attend those meetings — held three to six times per year — while battling cancer.

“When the elected official would appear to have limitations based upon their health, it’s not clear at the end of the day to voters who’s calling the shots,” the high-level staffer said.

The staffer said voters should have faith that the state election system is in the hands of someone exercising their authority as an elected official.

“The expectation is the secretary of state is ultimately responsible for those decisions, but it’s not clear to what extent he’s involved in those discussions,” the official said.

Royal said Richardson’s leadership of the office hasn’t changed.

“Secretary Richardson continues to lead and manage the agency,” she said via email. “As he previously announced in his August 28 video update, he has cut back on travel and some public appearances. He is concentrating on the core functions of the office, and he continues to be the key decision-maker.”

Gov. Kate Brown’s spokesman, Chris Pair, said the governor wouldn’t comment on whether Richardson disclosed his condition and treatment plan with her.

Glioblastoma is a ferocious form of cancer.

“It is the most aggressive (brain cancer), and it is arguably the most aggressive cancer, period,” said Dr. Seunggu Jude Han, surgical co-director of neuro-oncology clinical research at the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University.

Han said the most common treatment is surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment. On that course, the average patient has about 18 months to live, Han said.

Han addressed glioblastoma generally, not Richardson’s case. Richardson has said he is receiving medical care from OHSU.

If Richardson has had brain surgery to test for glioblastoma, he has not said so publicly. Privately, he has said he opted against surgery, the high-level staffer said. Videos of him since the announcement show no outward signs of surgery.

Han said there are alternative treatments used but generally a physician would require a biopsy before prescribing powerful drugs.

Other treatment options include amino therapy, which ramps up a patient’s immune system through vaccines or other methods to attack the cancer cells. Trials on amino therapy have been increasingly hopeful over the past 10 to 15 years, Han said, but the data is very limited because so few patients divert from standard treatment.

If glioblastoma goes untreated, data shows patients have weeks to about six months to live. They can experience speech and vision defects and loss of control of limbs.

Han stressed that each case is different and the average scenario might not apply to a specific patient.

“By in large, no there hasn’t been anything that’s been reliably effective,” Han said.

Richardson said earlier this summer in a video posted to Facebook the tumor was small and caught early. Later in the summer said he was feeling better and imaging has shown his tumor to be shrinking. Through the summer, he released monthly videos updating the public on his condition.

The last one was shared Aug. 28, and differed from the first two in that it included five cuts, which Richardson saying about a sentence or two per cut. The previous videos were seamless.

When the Capital Bureau requested the unedited version of the Aug. 28 video through a public records request, Richardson’s office said what appeared in public was all there was.

In October, Richardson posted several short videos encouraging Oregonians to vote in the Nov. 6 election. The previously svelte man appeared with a puffy face and talked in a slower, more lethargic tone. 

Since September, Richardson’s calendar has shown he is spending most of his time at the southern Oregon office, which was previously his law office in his home of Central Point, though Richardson and his staff have declined to say how often he is in Central Point versus Salem. Senate President Peter Courtney’s spokesman, Robin Maxey, said Courtney met with Richardson a couple of times during the past five months, which is about usual. Aaron Feidler, spokesman for the House majority office, said House Speaker Tina Kotek has not had much communication with Richardson, but that is normal.

Richardson serves as part of the State Land Board — a triumvirate of the secretary of state, governor and treasurer. The Land Board was created by the Oregon Constitution upon statehood in 1859 and charged with managing state lands and overseeing the Common School Fund.

On Oct. 15, the day before a land board meeting, Richardson sent an email alerting its members that he planned to delegate his seat, which includes voting power, to his deputy, Leslie Cummings, through the duration of his cancer treatment. Richardson said this was part of an effort to reduce public appearances to save time and energy.

“Despite my cancer treatment, I remain focused on the core functions of my office and am working with my executive leadership team daily to provide direction,” Richardson said in the email.

Dmitri Palmateer, state Treasurer Tobias Read’s chief of staff, subsequently asked the Oregon Department of Justice whether such a delegation was legal. DOJ has yet to release its opinion. When asked how interactions between the Treasurer’s Office and Richardson have changed since the summer, Palmateer said access to Richardson through his office has lessened over time.

“In our interactions with the secretary of state’s office, staff had been pretty honest that they had not had an opportunity to run certain things by the secretary,” Palmateer said. “As to whether or not that stemmed from that we were in an election season, or a need to cut back on his schedule due to health reasons, we don’t know.”

Royal disagreed with that characterization.

“Schedule changes or appointment cancellations continue at the same frequency as they always have,” she said.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.