News & Politics

Disgraced Former Oregon Governor 'Blindsided' by Rejection of Ethics Probe Settlement

Oregon’s disgraced former governor, Democrat John Kitzhaber, was given some shocking news on Friday. A proposed settlement in an ethics investigation, which would have included a $1,000 fine, was rejected by the Oregon Governmental Ethics Commission. Several members of the commission were quoted in the media stating that they felt the proposed fine was too small, and that Kitzhaber had yet to resolve some of the commission’s questions.

Under the proposed settlement, Kitzhaber publicly apologized for not making disclosures of potential conflicts of interest in relation to financial gains by his live-in girlfriend, Cylvia Hayes. He also apologized for accepting a gift of value due to his public office, in the form of frequent flier miles earned while on state business trips.

Kitzhaber’s spokesman told the Salem Statesman Journal that the former governor was “blindsided” by the rejection of the settlement. When the settlement was originally announced on Tuesday, Kitzhaber posted a statement on his Facebook page that said, in part:

I am I glad to say this episode in my life is finally over. After having been cleared of wrong doing by the federal investigation, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission has completed its review as well. You will be seeing this in the media today so I wanted you to hear it directly from me.

The commission could have imposed fines of up to $20,000, but opted for a smaller fine in the proposed settlement. The reasoning was that as a first-time offense, the fine should not be maxed out. The formal vote on Friday, however, went 7-1 against accepting the terms of the settlement. Several members told the media that they thought the fine was far too small. Dan Mason, a member of the commission, told Oregon Live, “A top official violating ethics laws should pay a top penalty.”

Part of the settlement would have caused the ethics commission to drop its separate investigation into Hayes. The failure of the settlement keeps both investigations open. A full report of the investigation is due to the commission at their January 2018 meeting.

The ethics commission started its investigation prior to Election Day 2014, when then-Representative Vicki Berger (R-Salem) and the Oregon Republican Party filed state ethics complaints alleging that Kitzhaber and his girlfriend used their public positions for financial gain. At the time, Kitzhaber was locked in a tough reelection campaign, and the news of the alleged violations took a toll. He barely won reelection over Republican Dennis Richardson, only to resign three months later.

Kitzhaber resigned as Oregon governor in February 2015, a few months after having been elected to a record fourth term. His resignation came amid a cloud of ethical lapses surrounding Hayes, and the numerous conflicts of interest created by her lobbying for green energy policies to be adopted by the state. Hayes was allegedly being paid by environmental groups via her consulting firm, for her influence in enacting state policies. State law requires the governor, or any public official, to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. It also bars public officials or members of their household from gaining something of value as a result of holding office. Media reports at the time revealed that Hayes made upwards of $225,000 in consulting fees during Kitzhaber’s third term as governor.

The commission suspended its investigations pending criminal investigations by the state Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ announced in June 2017 that it was closing its investigation without bringing charges, prompting the ethics commission to resume its own investigation. Oregon’s Attorney General, Ellen Rosenblum (D-Portland), was forced by the feds to cease her investigation due to obvious conflicts of interest herself. OregonLive reported earlier this year that officials with the DOJ “worried about Rosenblum’s conflicts of interest, given her duty to represent Kitzhaber’s office and other state officials under investigation.” They further noted:

At the time, Oregon State Police were investigating the leak of Kitzhaber’s emails to Willamette Week, which is published by Rosenblum’s husband, Richard Meeker. [Then-US Attorney Amanda] Marshall fretted about the state’s ability to keep secrets. The leaks “undercut ODOJ’s ability to fully and fairly investigate this matter,” she wrote, referring to the Oregon Department of Justice.

It remains to be seen how the investigation will be resolved. So far there is no word of any updated settlement, and all indications are that the investigation is ongoing. The final report is due in January.