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Multnomah County's Longtime Chief Prosecutor Retires

Thursday, Multnomah County leaders marked the retirement of one of the region’s most venerated elected officials. District Attorney Michael Schrunk has served since 1980. Many who worked with him call him one of the most influential voices in Oregon criminal justice circles. April Baer reports. 

Michael Schrunk

Michael Schrunk

Multnomah County

Commissioners were all ready with a proclamation they’d prepared for Mike Schrunk at Thursday morning’s meeting. But, true to form, he was avoiding the limelight, spurring a quick search by the commissioners.

Judy Shiprack: “Wai - where is Mike Schrunk?”

Jeff Cogen: “He’s in the back - being embarrassed!”

Deb Kafoury: “Yes, you need to come forward.”

Multnomah County Judge Julie Frantz has known Schrunk for decades — even tried a few cases against him when he was a young prosecutor and she was a public defender. At the meeting, she said Shrunk isn’t about getting attention for himself.

“Mike is all about serving others,” Frantz said. ” As a decorated Marine, as a concerned public servant about equal treatment and access to justice by all in our community, and for several decades as our county’s very respected district attorney, not only in this county, but statewide, nationwide, perhaps beyond.”

Schrunk’s reputation was such that when Doug Harcleroad was elected DA in Lane County back in 1984, he sought Schrunk out.

“One of the first things I did was to go to Portland from Eugene, to visit Mike Schrunk and to find out how to run a DA’s office,” Harcleroad said.

Harcleroad said Schrunk was one of the first prosecutors he knew who had attorneys specialize in certain kinds of cases. And he remembers Schrunk’s activism on behalf of crime victims. And, he promoted good working relationships. 

“There’s another thing that Mike has always been a master at. I call it ‘You get more with sugar than you get with salt,’” Harcleroad said.

The quality of those relationships with commissioners, police chiefs, social service agencies, and others is an example to everyone in prosecution, Harcleroad said.

Schrunk himself made a brief speech at the Thursday commissioners’ meeting. He said he wanted to build a career office, the kind of place where prosecutors would stay instead of moving on to lucrative work in the private sector after a few years. 

“When I first came, I don’t think many of you are old enough to remember - I had to undo 56 convictions - the drug planting scandal that took place here,” Schrunk said.

That was a reference to a scandal at the time, involving the Portland Police Bureau’s narcotics unit.

“And I always thought you need to do the tight thing for the right reason,” Shrunk said. “And sometimes what you think is the right reason, isn’t. You have to analyze it and say, at the end of each day, ‘Are you doing more good than harm?’ “

Many at the meeting noted his pioneering work setting up drug courts, courts to handle complaints against the homeless, and his commitment to promoting women and prosecutors of color.

Federal Judge Ancer Haggerty ran into Mike Schrunk at the University of Oregon student union when both were undergrads. They joined the Marines around the same time, and have been close friends since. 

“He’s never sought the spotlight, and he’s always been in the spotlight, so it’s kind of ironic,” Haggerty said.

Haggerty never knew about Schrunk’s political pedigree until after they became friends. Schrunk is the son of a former Portland mayor who went through a bribery scandal in the 1950s. The senior Schrunk was acquitted, but Haggerty said the episode made a lasting impression: “That was something Mike always insisted he would not take his family through.”

Schrunk has reportedly had chances to seek higher office, and declined each time.

Haggerty said he teases Schrunk, who’s now 70, about retirement almost every time he sees him.

“Well, you’re going to have to go out and find a job,” Haggerty recalled telling Schrunk. “And he doesn’t say he’s not going to. He won’t run for office. That I know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he sought some other type of employment, because he does like working.”

Schrunk said he has no reservations about turning the office over to Rod Underhill, a long-time deputy who was elected without opposition in May. 

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