Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber + Cylvia Hayes: Political Valentine gone wrong?

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancée Cylvia Hayes worked well together as she took on the first lady role as confidante and advisor. But their working relationship became the stuff of scandal, and he was forced to resign.

Kobbi R. Blair/Statesman-Journal/AP
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber speaks in his office in Salem, Ore., in 2012. Kitzhaber announced his resignation Friday amid allegations his fiancée Cylvia Hayes used her relationship with him to enrich herself.

In the end, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber stood alone in the harsh political spotlight. In the end, he really had no option but to resign as an ethical scandal involving his fiancée Cylvia Hayes kept growing.

The essence of the scandal is that Ms. Hayes, in her unofficial capacity as first lady, used her position as an advisor and confidante to the governor – she had an office at the State Capital in Salem – for financial gain. The state ethics commission had begun an inquiry, and state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a fellow-Democrat who had called the allegations against Kitzhaber “very serious – and troubling,” launched a criminal investigation.

"I understand that I have become a liability to the very institutions and policies to which I have dedicated my career and, indeed, my entire adult life," Gov. Kitzhaber wrote in a statement released Friday afternoon. "As a former presiding officer I fully understand the reasons for which I have been asked to resign."

Republicans linked to the GOP candidate Kitzhaber had defeated to win an unprecedented fourth term last November had begun a recall effort. Democrats had been notably silent about Kitzhaber’s growing political predicament until Thursday, when top officials began speaking out.

Senate President Peter Courtney and House Majority Leader Tina Kotek – both Democrats – met with Kitzhaber that morning and told him it was time to resign. Another prominent Democrat – Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler – also called for Kitzhaber’s resignation Thursday.

Ms. Hayes is alleged to have used her position close to the governor – they lived together and had been a couple for years – to land clients for her environmental consulting business. Emails 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 was also 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.

Meanwhile, the US Justice Department has gotten involved.

Federal prosecutors this week subpoenaed state records and electronic communications relating to Kitzhaber, Hayes, and 15 others in Kitzhaber's administration.

The subpoena seeks data from a list of state agencies and private companies since 2009 as well as email communications for people in the governor's office and records of payments to Hayes and her company 3E Strategies.

The spotlight on financial issues also led to Hayes’s admitting to have accepted about $5,000 for illegally marrying 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.

If Kitzhaber and Hayes marry as planned, it would be the third marriage for each of them. Twenty years younger than him, Hayes had a very different upbringing than the emergency room physician and accomplished politician who began his college studies in the Ivy League (Dartmouth College).

Hayes was raised in rural poverty in Washington State, for a time in a home without electricity or running water. She ran away from home when she was 16, marrying for the first time at 17. There was a point in her early life when she lived in her car and a tent on public land.

"Alcoholism and mental illness took a real toll on my parents," Hayes told one interviewer. "I went through some pretty insecure and shaky times." 

Eventually, she was able to put herself through college and turn her interest in environmental issues into a consulting business, putting together a life of professional success and financial security her early years had lacked.

Speaking directly to the questions that have been raised about him and Hayes, Kitzhaber said, "I am confident that I have not broken any laws nor taken any actions that were dishonest or dishonorable in their intent or outcome.”

While Kitzhaber accepted what had become inevitable, and he apologized to supporters in his statement, he leaves with some bitterness.

“I must also say that 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,” he said. “But even more troubling – and on a very personal level as someone who has given 35 years of public service to Oregon – is that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value.”

“It is something that is hard for me to comprehend – something we might expect in Washington, D.C. but surely not in Oregon,” Kitzhaber continued. “I do not know what it means for our shared future but I do know that it is seriously undermining civic engagement in this state and the quality of the public discourse that once made Oregon stand out from the pack.”

Over the years, Oregon does seem to have had a distinctive brand of politics – relaxed and progressive without being particularly partisan, a place as comfortable with moderate Republican governors like Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall as it is with incumbent Democratic US senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

Ironically, as Reid Wilson pointed out in the Washington Post this week, Oregon is the least corrupt state in the nation, according to Justice Department data showing that fewer public officials were convicted in Oregon over the last four decades than in any other state.

As for John Kitzhaber, on Feb. 18 he will turn over the reins of state government to Secretary of State Kate Brown – next in succession since Oregon has no lieutenant governor. In the 2016 general election, voters will choose someone to finish the last two years of what would have been Kitzhaber’s fourth term as governor.

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