No matter how he would like to twist the narrative, the rise and fall of John Kitzhaber lies squarely on his shoulders.
News came this month that the U.S. Department of Justice had decided against filing criminal charges against the former governor or his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. The decision brought a merciful end to a 28-month investigation by four federal agencies into whether the couple used their high-profile public positions for personal benefit.
The ordeal cast a shadow over the state as well as many of the public servants who had worked loyally for the governor for years. Lawmakers have worked with varying success over the past two years to draft ethics and public records laws to address problems highlighted in the downfall of the man once considered one of Oregon's most durable politicians.
Kitzhaber claims he's been vindicated.
The federal prosecutor didn't set out to decide whether the actions of the former governor and first lady passed the smell test. The prosecutor focused only on whether their actions violated the law. The decision simply tells us that their conduct, while dishonest and self-serving, fell short of being criminal.
Criminality was a high bar to begin with, but it was made even higher just one year into the Kitzhaber investigation, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the public corruption convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife for insufficient evidence that the money and gifts they accepted led to "official action."
The fact remains that Kitzhaber failed to address the conflicts of interest created when Hayes' consulting contracts, which totaled about $200,000, began overlapping her policy work in his office.
Taxpayers would be well served if findings from the investigation are provided to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, which announced this week it will resume its long-delayed review into ethics complaints filed by Republicans. Hopefully that review can provide more answers that can shape the ethics reforms still needed in Oregon.
For now, unfortunately, Kitzhaber is choosing his own translation of the federal prosecutor's brief statement. He's a victim of the media. A guinea pig for fake news. It all sounds rather Trumpian. And like the drumbeat of strained logic we see inside the Beltway these days, Kitzhaber is spinning an overly simplistic and revisionist storyline by attempting to categorize this as a war between him and the media.
It's a disingenuous strategy that takes away from his correct decision in 2015 to resign. The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board had called for that move not because of any criminality, but because at that moment in time he had become a source of unending distraction and could no longer lead the state effectively.
Kitzhaber did not resign because he lost control of a "media frenzy."
No, in the years leading up to the scandal he had lost control of his own office and failed to put clear boundaries on his fiancee's fast expanding role within it. He had lost sight of his duty to provide answers Oregonians deserved when his office failed to provide public records before he was elected to his historic — and historically short — fourth term.
Most damaging, Kitzhaber had lost the trust and support of longtime colleagues and political leaders who were encouraging him to go.
Some Oregonians may agree with Kitzhaber's misguided analysis. Others still feel burned. But by blaming anyone else for what played out in 2015, Kitzhaber only undermines the potential for him to earn back that trust.