SHHS alum 2 steps from U.S. marshal

Scott Swanson

Russ Burger has traveled a long way since graduating from Sweet Home High School, but it looks like his next stop will be at a different level from his current position as Lane County Sheriff.

He is awaiting Senate confirmation of President Obama’s nomination to serve as U.S. marshal for the state of Oregon.

Burger, 48, said he decided to apply for the marshal’s position after Dennis Merrill announced his retirement because “it’s a pretty rare opportunity.”

“That position has been vacant twice since 1981,” Burger said. “I figured at this point in my career in law enforcement, after 23 years, I probably will not get another opportunity. So I threw my name in the hat.”

Burger didn’t intend to get into law enforcement, necessarily, when he graduated from SHHS in 1980. He played football for Coach Tom Horn, who remembers him as “an All-American boy – handsome, respectful, everybody’s friend. He wasn’t cliquish. He had all the qualities you expect from somebody who’s going on to be successful in life.”

Burger earned a degree in business administration from Oregon State University and went to work for a bank in Southern California, then worked for an insurance company for a year.

He then joined the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in corrections and was promoted to corporal and watch commander within five years. But after he and his wife Lynn, whom he met at OSU, started having children – they have two boys, Kyle, 20, and Logan, 17, they decided they wanted to come back to Oregon.

They did, and Burger went to work as a trooper for the Oregon State Police in 1994, earning promotions to sergeant, lieutenant and then being named area commander for the Springfield office, which included Lane and parts of Linn and Douglas counties.

“The next step for me would have been a captain’s position and I probably would have had to move to Salem,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that.”

Instead, in 2003 he seized an opportunity to take a job as chief deputy in the Lane County Sheriff’s Office. Soon after, the current Sheriff told Burger he was going to retire and Burger decided to run for the position. He won a three-way contest in 2004 and then was easily re-elected over two challengers in 2008.

In the middle of his four-year term, he is in charge of approximately 350 employees and is responsible for patrol, corrections, emergency management, search and rescue and the other functions of the Sheriff’s office.

Burger has earned the respect of the community as Sheriff, according to the Eugene Register-Guard, which noted that his “steady, professional leadership of the Lane County sheriff’s department over the past decade demonstrates that he is well-qualified for the federal post” despite presiding over “a chronically overextended agency with a budget that has failed to keep pace with an increasing demand for services.”

Burger said he was one of 30 people who applied 14 months ago for the marshal’s position, and was one of 12 who got interviews by a committee established by Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

Despite the fact that he is a registered Republican, Burger was one of four finalists, which also included a retired state police captain, a retired chief of police from Gresham and a police commander from Portland.

After a vetting process that included “a pretty extensive background investigation because this is a national security position,” President Obama announced Burger’s selection two weeks ago. The next step is confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee and then by the full U.S. Senate.

“It’s been a pretty protracted process,” he said. “I think I’ve got a pretty good shot at it.”

He said the U.S. Marshal’s Service, which includes roughly 50 employees, not including security officers, is “an outstanding public safety organization. They are the best at what they do.”

The Marshal’s service does many of the same things he’s responsible for as Sheriff: providing security at federal courthouses in Medford, Eugene and Portland; pursuing fugitives; transporting prisoners to and from federal court; judicial security; and witness protection.

“They just have an outstanding track record, as an organization, for professionalism and service,” he said.

The Marshal’s Service is based in Portland, so Burger said he’s probably going to have to “get a place” there while maintaining his family’s residence in Eugene.

“Maybe the back seat of a truck,” he joked.

If he gets the job, “it’d be a heck of an honor,” he said.

“It’s an honor to be nominated. The ability to serve my country in that capacity is really an honor.”

Horn said he’s happy to see how Burger has progressed.

“He’s just a good old Sweet Home kid who took advantage of a good school system and took advantage of his opportunities and made the most of them,” he said. “This wasn’t a kid who was just given things in life.

“It’s not surprising that he’s where he’s at.”