Attorney general says Kitzhaber's ethics allegations 'troubling'
SALEM— Oregon's governor is struggling to deal with allegations that his fiancee used his position to land clients for her environmental consulting business, claims that have drawn an ethics investigation and the scrutiny of the state's attorney general.
Although his role in arranging the deals isn't clear, the scandal has posed a threat to the decades-long political career of four-term Democrat John Kitzhaber, Oregon's longest-serving governor.
The editorial board at the state's largest newspaper, The Oregonian, called for him to resign this week, saying the controversy has become such a distraction that he can't effectively lead. Two advisers to the Republican he defeated last year took early steps Friday to begin a recall effort.
A series of newspaper reports since October have chronicled Cylvia Hayes' work for organizations with an interest in Oregon public policy. During the same period, she worked as an unpaid adviser in the governor's office. The spotlight on Hayes led to her revelation that she accepted about $5,000 to illegally marry an immigrant seeking immigration benefits in the 1990s. Later, she admitted she bought a remote property with the intent to grow marijuana.
"Recent allegations relating to Gov. Kitzhaber and Ms. Hayes are very serious — and troubling," Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement. "My office is considering all of our legal options to ensure that we are best serving the state."
Rosenblum's spokeswoman, Kristina Edmunson, would not elaborate on which allegations troubled the attorney general, who is a Democrat. Under Oregon law, the attorney general's authority to investigate and bring criminal charges is limited, but her office sometimes assists district attorneys with complex cases.
Kitzhaber has repeatedly declined to appoint a special prosecutor, saying it's unnecessary. He has refused to step aside, no doubt emboldened by his re-election victory three months ago. Even after the first strands of scandal became the centerpiece of his rival's campaign, Kitzhaber won by a larger margin than he managed four years earlier.
"I was elected by the people of this state to do a job, and I'm going to do it," Kitzhaber said in a Jan. 30 news conference that failed to quell the growing storm.
A fiercely private person, Kitzhaber has been forced to answer embarrassing and personal questions about his relationship. In response to questions at the news conference last week, Kitzhaber told reporters that he's in love with Hayes, but he's not blinded by it.
Some state leaders from his party have openly criticized him. Others have notably avoided defending him.
"The governor is facing serious challenges and he's hurting," said Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem, a longtime legislator who has worked with Kitzhaber for decades. "I want to be fair. I want to be compassionate. I want to do my job the best I can. I will not speculate on his future."
Kitzhaber met Hayes before the 2002 election, when he was governor and she was a candidate for the state Legislature. She lost her race, but they later reconnected after Kitzhaber's term ended.
After eight years out of office, Kitzhaber was elected governor again in 2011. Hayes used the title "first lady," though the couple has never married, and she took an active role in his administration. They were engaged last summer.
Media reports have accused Hayes of using her position to get private consulting work; earning money from companies that wanted to influence the state; and directing taxpayer funded staff to make travel arrangements on behalf of her private business.
Last month, EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group reported that Hayes earned $118,000 over two years for a fellowship with a green energy group. The Oregonian reported that the money didn't match her earnings reported on her tax returns, which she'd previously given to the newspaper. Kitzhaber said the couple files taxes separately and refused to answer questions.
The Oregon Government Ethics Commission has opened an inquiry and will decide in March whether a formal investigation is warranted. The commission enforces conflict of interest laws for government officials and can impose civil penalties, but can't levy criminal charges.
Kitzhaber has said he and Hayes recognized the potential for conflicts between her public and private work and tried to avoid them. He said last week it's up to the ethics commission to decide whether they were successful.
The recall effort, filed by the former campaign manager and policy director for Republican Dennis Richardson, would require 220,000 signatures within 90 days — a difficult and expensive task. Oregon's chief elections official, Secretary of State Kate Brown, said Friday that the recall must wait until Kitzhaber is six months into his term.