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Port Angeles mystery man becomes lead plaintiff against Obama's health law

A central character in what could be the most important U.S. Supreme Court case of this generation happens to live in Port Angeles, Wash. – and he’s not talking to reporters.

Kaj Ahlburg, commonly referred to as “a retired investment banker,” is the lead plaintiff suing the Obama Administration over the 2010 health care law called the Affordable Care Act. While he has been mum about his case in the High Court, he's had plenty to say in his home community.

Role as plaintiff

Ahlburg prefers not to purchase health insurance. And in the lawsuit, he represents the tens of millions of Americans who don’t have health insurance. Under the law, they’ll have to start paying a penalty in 2014 if they refuse to purchase insurance.

Why doesn’t Ahlburg want to buy insurance? How did he get involved in this lawsuit? Why did he relocate to Port Angeles?

He’s not talking – at least not about those questions. Reporters, including NPR’s Robert Siegel, have tried to contact him. KPLU is attempting to reach him this week.

A little insight

In a March 29, 2010, letter to Peninsula Daily News, that paper reports, Ahlburg challenged the health care law as "blatantly unconstitutional," in particular the requirement that individuals buy health care insurance.

"It would be akin to requiring us to buy certain kinds of food or rent certain kinds of housing the federal government designates," Ahlburg said in his letter to the editor (the paper does not publish letters online). "Each individual citizen has standing to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and many undoubtedly will . . ."

Outspoken in Port Angeles

On the other hand, Ahlburg has been an outspoken member of the Port Angeles community. Soon after relocating to Port Angeles, he became active with the local chamber of commerce and in local Republican politics.

Today, he’s the Treasurer of the Clallam County Republican Party, and past president of the Port Angeles Business Association.  

The best information comes from a 2011 profile by Paul Gottlieb in the Peninsula Daily News, and other stories in that paper about his involvement in local public affairs.

From January until September 2010 he served on a prominent board in Port Angeles, called Harbor-Works Development Authority. It was charged with finding a way to redevelop the abandoned pulp mill, owned by Rayonier Corp. But the development authority disbanded, after Rayonier, Inc. decided not to negotiate a sale of the land at this time, due to concerns about its liability for the environmental cleanup.

International background

Ahlburg is in his early 50s and was apparently born in Spain, attended college in Ontario, Canada, and then law school at Harvard University, where he earned his degree in 1985.

By the early 1990s he was an executive at a prestigious New York investment bank, called Dillon, Read & Co.

He’s told audiences that he witnessed the Sept. 11th attacks. By 2003, he had relocated to Port Angeles. But he’s still listed as working for Dillon, Read through 2008, when he made campaign contributions to Sen. John McCain. (Dillon, Read became a subsidiary of the Swiss Bank Corp. in 1997, which later became UBS.)

Last plaintiff in health care suit

Ahlburg joined the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act in May, 2010, as one of just two plaintiffs. He was selected by the plaintiff lawyers at the firm Baker Hostetler, from many who applied nationally.

The other plaintiff, Mary Brown of Florida, was to represent small business owners, which also are compelled to purchase insurance in 2014. But Brown has since been dropped from the suit.

According to the L.A. Times, court records reveal that Brown and her husband filed for bankruptcy last fall with $4,500 in unpaid medical bills.  Her small auto repair shop near Panama City, Fla., has closed, and she and her husband had filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, the Times reports. Brown said in the petition that her only income was $275 a month in unemployment benefits.

That leaves Ahlburg as the lone plaintiff and the face of the heath care battle.

On the Web:

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.