Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber pressured to resign over 'first lady' scandal

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s fiancée Cylvia Hayes, who serves as the state’s first lady, faces charges that she used her political influence for financial gain. Kitzhaber is facing pressure to resign.

Don Ryan/AP
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is joined by his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, as he is sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term last month in Salem, Ore. An ethics controversy involving Hayes has prompted calls for Governor Kitzhaber to resign.

Pressure is mounting on Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to resign over an ethics scandal involving the state’s first lady – Governor Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and the state Ethics Commission have launched investigations into charges that Ms. Hayes used her political influence for personal financial gain. Fellow Democrats have been notably silent rather than publicly supportive of the embattled governor, until now a popular politician elected last year to an unprecedented fourth term. The state’s leading newspaper – the Oregonian in Portland – has called for the resignation of the man it endorsed for reelection just a few months ago.

In fact, according to several news reports, Kitzhaber decided last Sunday to resign, summoning back from a conference in Washington Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, who would succeed him as governor if he resigned. (The state has no lieutenant governor.)

But Kitzhaber apparently changed his mind, three people with direct knowledge of the situation told the Associated Press.

"Let me be as clear as I was last week, that I have no intention of resigning as Governor of the state of Oregon," Kitzhaber's office declared in a statement Wednesday. "I was elected to do a job for the people of this great state and I intend to continue to do so."

It’s unclear how long that position can hold.

Senate President Peter Courtney and House Majority Leader Tina Kotek – both Democrats – met with Kitzhaber on Thursday morning and told him it was time to resign, the Oregonian reported.

"He was upset. He was defiant. He was struggling,” Senator Courtney said. "This thing is evolving by the second."

Another prominent Democrat – Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler – also called for Kitzhaber’s resignation Thursday.

"Unfortunately, the current situation has become untenable, and I cannot imagine any scenario by which things improve,” Mr. Wheeler said in a statement. “Oregon deserves a Governor who is fully focused on the duties of state.”

Ms. Hayes is alleged to have used her position close to the governor to land clients for her environmental consulting business. Recently-released e-mails show Hayes directed state employees how to implement a new policy while she was being paid $25,000 by an advocacy group to promote it.

It's also been reported that Hayes earned $118,000 over two years for a fellowship with the Clean Economy Development Center, and that the money didn't match the earnings reported on her tax returns.

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

Although Hayes had an office and computer at the State Capitol in Salem, her lawyers have argued that "she was never a part of state government” and therefore not subject to ethics commission jurisdiction.

“She certainly gave the governor her thoughts and opinions on certain matters on which he conferred with her, as often occurs with spouses, friends and supporters of other elected officials," the lawyers told the commission in a December filing. "The elected official is obviously free to do whatever he or she deems appropriate with respect to such thoughts or opinions, including ignoring them."

Pat Hearn, former executive director of the ethics commission, called the lawyers' letter "typical lawyerese,” telling the Oregonian newspaper that the argument that Hayes did not draw a salary "absolutely" does not make her off-limits to ethics law.

"The definition of public official clearly states that someone is a public official whether they are compensated or not," Mr. Hearn said.

More recently, Hayes has hired a prominent Portland criminal defense attorney. The lawyers who had been representing her continue to represent Kitzhaber.

Kitzhaber has repeatedly declined to appoint a special prosecutor. The state attorney general's authority to investigate and bring criminal charges is limited, but the office sometimes assists district attorneys with complex cases.

Republican strategists are contemplating a recall effort, which would require gathering more than 200,000 signatures. Under state law, an elected official must serve six months in office before being recalled.

Meanwhile, the Oregonian reports, attorneys for Kitzhaber – the longest-serving governor in state history – are looking into setting up a defense fund that can pay legal expenses related to the criminal investigation and three ethics complaints he faces.

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

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