Can Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber survive 'first lady' scandal?

John Kitzhaber has been a popular Oregon governor, recently elected to his fourth term. But now he’s entangled in scandal as his fiancée Cylvia Hayes faces charges of using political influence for personal financial gain.

Don Ryan/AP
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is joined by his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, as he is sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term in Salem Jan. 12. Hayes faces allegations that she used her access to the governor's office to secure contracts for her consulting business.

For years, Governor John Kitzhaber has seemed the quintessential Oregon politician – relaxed and progressive without being particularly partisan.

A Dartmouth undergrad and emergency room physician who’d patched up injured loggers, and whose signature dress included jeans and cowboy boots with jacket and tie (even at his inauguration). A moderate Democrat who worked well with Republicans as state Senate president, then went on to be elected to the state’s highest office four times – like California’s Jerry Brown with a break between terms two and three.

But now Gov. Kitzhaber finds himself mired in what looks like a political scandal with a familiar twist: Romance.

Mounting press reports are focusing on past events in the life of his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, who’s taken on the role of first lady. More to the point are allegations that Ms. Hayes used her position close to the governor to land clients for her environmental consulting business.

Recently-released emails show Ms. Hayes directed state employees how to implement a new policy while she was being paid $25,000 by an advocacy group to promote it.

“The emails appear to erase any doubt that, as first lady, Hayes was taking money in her private role and pushing the same policy in her public one,” the Oregonian, the state’s leading newspaper, reported Friday. “The emails, released by the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, also show a deeper involvement by Kitzhaber than state officials had previously described.”

Earlier, EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group had 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.

The spotlight on financial issues also led to Hayes’ revelation that she accepted about $5,000 to illegally marry an immigrant seeking immigration benefits in the 1990s, which she called "the biggest mistake of my life." Later, she admitted she bought a remote property with the intent to grow marijuana.

But if there’s more trouble ahead for Kitzhaber and Hayes, it’s likely to focus on the financial issue – personal gain resulting from political influence.

"Recent allegations relating to Governor Kitzhaber and Ms. Hayes are very serious – and troubling," Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a fellow Democrat, said in a statement. "My office is considering all of our legal options to ensure that we are best serving the state."

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, and he has refused to step aside.

"I was elected by the people of this state to do a job and I'm going to do it," Kitzhaber said at a news conference Jan. 30. Kitzhaber told reporters that he's in love with Hayes, but he's not blinded by it.

Meanwhile, the public and political pressure on Kitzhaber mounts.

“No doubt, the governor does intend to do the job Oregonians gave him, which, simply put, is to pursue the interests of his constituents,” the Oregonian (which had endorsed Kitzhaber’s recent reelection) declared in a lead editorial this week. “That intention, however, is no match for an ugly reality of his own making, whose sordid elements keep surfacing with dispiriting regularity….”

“More ugliness may surface, but it should be clear by now to Kitzhaber that his credibility has evaporated to such a degree that he can no longer serve effectively as governor,” the Oregonian opined. “If he wants to serve his constituents he should resign.”

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission has opened an inquiry and will decide in March whether a formal investigation is warranted. 

“The facts need to come out sooner rather than later,” State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, also a Democrat, told Willamette Week newspaper. “This presents a potential crisis of confidence in government.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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