Oregon Swears In New Governor Amid Ethics Scandal
Former secretary of state Kate Brown replaced four-term Gov. John Kitzhaber on Wednesday after he stepped down amid criminal ethics investigation. In doing so, Brown becomes the nation’s first openly bisexual governor.
Kate Brown was sworn in as Oregon’s new governor Wednesday, replacing fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, who stepped down amid a broiling controversy over his fiancÃ©e’s influence in his administration.
Unlike most states, Oregon has no lieutenant governor, so as secretary of state, Brown was next in the line of succession. She also becomes the first openly bisexual governor in the nation.
Brown’s swearing in marks an end to Kitzhaber’s record-setting four-term tenure as governor, which came under growing attack amid revelations that his fiancÃ©e, Cylvia Hayes, was allegedly using her position to profit personally as a private energy consultant.
Kitzhaber had waffled back and forth on whether he would step down as his behavior has grown increasingly bizarre. But then last week, he announced his resignation would be effective at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Addressing the state Legislature, Brown said Oregon had been in the national news “for all the wrong reasons,” and that she planned to change that “starting today,” the Associated Press reported.
“We are all keenly aware of the difficult circumstances that brought us to this moment — circumstances that none of us would have predicted only a short time ago,” she said.
Here’s how it got to this point:
The story of Kitzhaber’s troubles begins in October, when the Willamette Week exposed evidence that his fiancÃ©e, Cylvia Hayes, was using her position to profit personally.
The Willamette Week story described Hayes as possibly “the most influential first lady in Oregon history.”
The paper went on to describe Hayes’ role in Kitzhaber’s administration: She kept a desk at the governor’s office, went on trade missions, and characterized herself as a “policy advisor” to Kitzhaber.
However, Hayes was also a private energy consultant, and records showed that she had taken money from private groups that had an interest in the policies she was pushing at the time.
Her private and public work apparently overlapped in other ways as well — records showed that she used her state-paid assistant for private work and her government titles while appearing as a private consultant.
Willamette Week also found evidence of income that Hayes didn’t report on her tax returns, and that she was once paid to participate in an illegal sham marriage with an Ethiopian immigrant. In addition, she allegedly once planned an illegal marijuana growing operation in Washington.
The allegations eventually led to an FBI investigation.
Despite the ethical questions surrounding Hayes’ role in the governor’s administration, Kitzhaber was re-elected to a fourth term in November.
Kitzhaber defeated Republican Dennis Richardson, becoming the first Oregon governor to be elected to a fourth term.
That same month, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission began investigating Hayes.
As the controversy brewed, Kitzhaber worked to distance himself from the allegations against Hayes.
After the original Willamette Week story ran, a spokesperson for Kitzhaber said the administration had “established a proactive, rigorous review of her professional contracts to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.”
Later, on Jan. 30, Kitzhaber gave a now-notorious news conference, during which he said Hayes would have no future role in his administration. He also said he was “in love,” but not “blinded by love.”
The Oregonian called the conference “disastrous.”
But as more documents trickled out, Kitzhaber himself began to be pulled further into the controversy.
Last week, newly released documents showed that Kitzhaber fired his communication director, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, in July because she criticized Hayes.
Harmon Johnson went on to pen an op-ed for The Oregonian one day before the November election, saying she “voiced concerns about the first lady, the overlap of campaign and state advisers, and the ways they interacted with state business.”
Other documents, released Thursday, show that just last week, Kitzhaber’s executive assistant asked state officials to delete his personal emails from state servers. Kitzhaber’s office later argued that the request was routine.
Finally, on Monday, Kitzhaber asked Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to conduct a “full and independent factual review of any and all questions or allegations as you see fit.”
But Roseblum responded with a three-sentence letter saying she had already opened a criminal investigation.
The Oregonian called the criminal investigation an “unprecedented” move, and by Thursday, Kitzhaber had hired a prominent criminal defense attorney.
Update: On Friday, Feb. 13, the Department of Justice issued criminal subpoenas for emials, phone logs, visitor logs and other documents connected to Kitshaber and Hayes, Willamette Week reported. The subpoenas also include 15 other people, as well as several state agencies.
The story took a turn for the bizarre this week when Kitzhaber reportedly toyed with the idea of resigning, but then changed his mind.
In a statement issued to BuzzFeed News, Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown recalled being called back to Oregon from a meeting in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. She said Kitzhaber wanted her to “speak with him in person and alone.”
When Brown arrived the next day, however, Kitzhaber “asked me why I came back early from Washington, DC, which I found strange.” He also said he wasn’t resigning.
“This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation,” Brown said, adding that she is ready to step in if Kitzhaber does step down.
The Oregonian also reported that Kitzhaber had planned on resigning at the end of the week, but then pulled back.
Many of Kitzhaber’s allies are now calling for him to resign.
On Thursday, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek met with Kitzhaber and asked him to resign, Kotek said in a statement issued to BuzzFeed News.
The statement continued:
It has become clear that the ongoing investigations surrounding the Governor and Cylvia Hayes have resulted in a loss of the people’s trust and undermined his ability to effectively lead as our state’s chief executive.
State Treasurer Ted Wheeler also issued a statement Thursday calling for Kitzhaber to step down because “the current situation has become untenable, and I cannot imagine any scenario by which things improve.”
The political leaders calling for Kitzhaber’s resignation join The Oregonian editorial board, which earlier this month called for the same action. The Oregonian had previously endorsed Kitzhaber for office four times.
If Kitzhaber does resign and Brown takes his place, she would be the first out bisexual governor in the U.S.
Brown was first elected to her current office in 2008, becoming the highest ranking out bisexual politician in the U.S. If she takes Kitzhaber’s place, she would also become the only sitting LGBT governor in the U.S.
Jason Wells contributed reporting.