By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Wednesday that former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber's personal emails could be withheld from an investigation into whether he used his position to benefit his fiancée.
The opinion by a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a setback for federal investigators, striking down a district court judge's finding that they should receive the emails.
Kitzhaber, a Democrat, resigned in February 2015 after the criminal probe into possible influence-peddling was begun against him. He denied any wrongdoing.
He had been dogged by allegations that his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, used her role as an adviser in his office for personal gain. She received $118,000 in consulting fees in 2011 and 2012 from Washington, D.C.-based Clean Economy Development Center while advising the governor on energy policy.
Federal investigators had obtained a grand jury subpoena seeking information held by the state of Oregon, including emails Kitzhaber sent and received while in office.
Kitzhaber, who was known for his informal style, used Gmail as his official email account and created other accounts for more personal exchanges, according to court documents.
His emails, including the personal ones, were archived by state officials.
The 9th Circuit panel, in a 21-page opinion from Judge Marsha Berzon, found the subpoena could violate Kitzhaber's privacy rights by requiring state officials to turn over the governor's messages of a personal nature, such as matters involving his children or medical care.
Kitzhaber has objected to having Oregon state officials comb through his emails to determine which ones are private and what can be released to investigators.
"Without limiting the possible procedures for segregating the documents to be produced, we note that one option ... would be engaging a neutral third party to sort Kitzhaber's emails," Berzon wrote.
The ruling sends the case back to the district court for further proceedings, in line with the 9th Circuit panel's findings.
"The investigation continues and we have no further comment on the decision," said Gerri Badden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oregon.
Kitzhaber's resignation came just three months after he was elected to an unprecedented fourth term after a political career spanning more than three decades. He famously wore blue jeans to his first inauguration in 1995.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)