By Xavier D. Stickler
The Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
Just months after being elected to a fourth term as governor of Oregon, John Kitzhaber has resigned after alleged legal violations regarding hiring at his office and his fiancée’s relationship with several for-profit organizations.
Allegations of Bribery Surface
This incident began to unravel back in October, when Willamette Week published a story detailing possible ethics concerns by the Kitzhaber administration. However, the story did not even make the majority of local news broadcasts and state newspapers until, at the beginning of February, the editoral board for The Oregonian and OregonLive.com called for the governor’s resignation.
The allegations include that two paid Kitzhaber campaign advisors, who began working for the governor after his election to his 3rd term in 2010, assisted the governor’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, in finding work. Hayes was already working as a non-paid energy advisor to the governor’s office. However, the possible impropriety was that the jobs created for Hayes were in private organizations that aim to influence government energy policy and regulation. This thereby creates a not-so-by-the-book connection between a private entity and the highest office in the state.
Scenarios similar to this are something many political careers have been ruined by, or even an issue that has sent public office holders to prison, including the recent case of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell was sentenced to two-years in a federal penitentiary on corruption charges after a jury found him and his wife to be guilty of accepting $165,000 and gifts in exchange for promoting and granting back-door power to a private pharmaceutical company.
Further implicating Governor Kitzhaber in this matter is that the two advisors currently under suspicion, Dan Carol and Greg Wolf, didn’t start working at the governor’s office immediately after the 2010 election, but rather after they assisted Hayes in finding work. Many see this as the governor rewarding two men from a private firm who helped his partner job: essentially flat-out bribery.
Furthermore, suspicion surrounding Hayes and Kitzhaber is nothing new. The very reason why Hayes allegedly asked for help finding a job was because she was unemployed following a criminal conflict-of-interest investigation during Kitzhaber’s run for office in 2010 in which the state awarded a multi-million dollar contract to a private energy firm employed her. Even though Kitzhaber was not in office at the time, and Hayes not in charge of negotiating the contract for the firm, the potential conflict-of-interests concern led to a criminal investigation, resulting in Hayes’ separation from the firm.
Hayes, Marijuana and the Ethiopian
Another large part of the discussion and media coverage surrounding Hayes is her October, 2014 admission to taking a $5,000 payment from an 18-year-old Ethiopian man in exchange for marrying him and helping him obtain a green card. Hayes confirmed her 1997 marriage was under false pretenses with the intent to defraud the US Federal government, an act punishable for up to five years in prison, during the 2014 governor’s race along with the confession that she purchased a plot of land to start a marijuana farm.
“I am not proud of that time in my life,” Hayes said in the October press conference.
To arouse suspicion of the governor even more, the first lady, Kitzhaber himself, his staff and all other parties involved in the scandal are being extremely evasive on the matter. While publicly promoting a inquiry of possible corruption by other state governing bodies, privately both Kitzhaber’s and Hayes’ lawyer have been fighting to ensure that Hayes will not be questioned on the matters concerning this case, claiming that the title “First Lady” is not a government position, therefore any commission from the state has no jurisdiction over her. However, prosecutors from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office, who is now investigating the allegations, argue that as Hayes had an office in the governor’s wing of the Capitol Building, as well as a state-paid credit card at one point and can subsequently be held to state-level review and inquiry.
The Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the exploration into Kitzhaber and his administration, citing it is an ongoing investigation. However, Rosenblum’s Communications Department staff stated that this was not due to this case’s high-profile nature.
“It’s just standard protocol as an operating procedure,” Ellen Klem, Director of Consumer Outreach, said.
Kitzhaber declined to comment on whether the payments, which came from the groups hoping to gain influence in the government to a member of his immediate family, was a conflict of interest or not. Kitzhaber cited that he did not want to interfere with the investigation by the state’s Ethics Commission. Hayes has also declined to speak with members of the media.
Before Kitzhaber’s statement on Friday the 13th that he would resign the next week, members of the Oregon Senate and House were calling for his resignation. This was met with an odd string of behavior.
In an interview with The Oregonian, Oregon State Senate President Peter Courtney talked about the discussion he had with Kitzhaber in which he asked the governor to resign.
“He was upset,” Courtney said to The Oregonian. “He was defiant. He was struggling.”
Despite the governor refusing to resign at that point Thursday the 12th, he earlier in the week had called Secretary of State, Kate Brown, back from Washington D.C., expressing the urgent need for her return. When Brown did meet with Kitzhaber the next day, the governor acted as though he forgot he summoned her.
“He asked me why I came back early from Washington, D.C., which I found strange,” Brown recounted in a written statement to The Pigeon Press.
This would appear as though he wanted to speak with her about resigning, but then changed his mind. However, this further confuses what Kitzhaber said next in the meeting.
“The governor told me he was not resigning,” Brown said. “After which, he began a discussion about transition. This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation.”
Even though Brown did not directly say that Kitzhaber had flip-flopped, numerous state and national news outlets have reported that the governor did indeed switch positions several times that week.
This confusion final ended, however, when Kitzhaber announced he would officially resign the next week. Five days later, Kate Brown took office.
As lawmakers were happy to see Kitzhaber leave, saying as the governor himself put it: he had “become a liability” to the state, some Oregonians were not too happy.
“Yes, it’s bad,” Pearce Hyatt, a sophomore, said before Brown took office. “But, he should deal with it, and move on. He’s still an effective governor.”
This sentiment was also echoed by David Bliss, instructor at Northwest Academy. Though, he had a different take on what the outcome should be.
“I met Kitzhaber once almost 20 years ago,” Bliss said. “He was a nice guy. I also met him about a year and a half ago to help support more African American centers to appear here in Portland. He’s someone who listens to what the state needs. But, he’s not a perfect man and apparently love has obstructed some of his common sense. It’s kinda sad to see him honestly. Though, I understand the necessity.”
Sharon Weir, social science teacher at Northwest Academy, focused more of the possible wrong-doing on Hayes rather than Kitzhaber.
“I feel like Cylvia Hayes is the one who acted questionably,” Weir said. “Kitzhaber is clearly willing to overlook her questionable behavior, but I don’t think he did anything criminal himself.”
The media coverage of the situation was also highly contested among some, including Kitzhaber.
“I am left feeling like media speculation was the judge and jury here,” Weir said. “This is not so say I think he is innocent, but the fact is I don’t know. The media decided he was guilty, high ranking Democrats saw an opening to further their power and joined the bandwagon, and Kitzhaber resigned.”
This was similar to a concern addressed in Kitzhaber’s resignation letter.
“It is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved,” Kitzhaber said.
Brown also made headlines as the first openly bisexual governor in the nation’s history. However, the coverage of this aspect of the story was another point of controversy among citizens.
“I found this media coverage [of her bisexuality] odd and indicative of their desire to find something salacious to promote.” Weir said.
Ian Cummings, senior at Northwest Academy, disagreed.
“The articles I have read and OPB I have listened to recently have done, what I feel to be, a great job in balancing the historic nature of her ascension to governor with providing other important information, such as her political background, in addition to raising questions about her new role.” Cummings said. “I will say that, in general, I don’t appreciate it when the media covers one’s sexual orientation to too great of an extent. Hopefully the news media will continue to do well in balancing Ms. Brown’s personal life with her politics.”
Photo Credit: Reuben Schafir