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Oregon first lady's sham marriage may shake up governor's race

A marriage of convenience decades ago is threatening to shake up Oregon politics.

Cylvia Hayes, the fiancee of Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, acknowledged this week that she had accepted about $5,000 to marry an immigrant in 1997 so that he could remain in the United States.

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Hayes, known as the state's first lady, and Kitzhaber have been in a relationship for 10 years and were formally betrothed this summer.

The governor, who is seeking reelection, didn't know about her marriage. Hayes was 29 and her husband, an Ethiopian national, Abraham B. Abraham, was 18.

"It was a marriage of convenience," said Hayes, now 47. "He needed help and I needed financial support."

Such marriages of convenience are illegal and can be punished by up to five years in prison and fines of $250,000.

At a news conference Thursday, Hayes accepted blame for the illegal marriage and whatever fallout may come.

"It was wrong then and it is wrong now, and I am here today to accept the consequences, some of which will be life-changing," she said. "And I cannot predict what direction this will go."

Special agent Todd Siegel of Homeland Security Investigations, the detective arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said about 270,000 people a year qualify for legal immigration status through marriage. Officials think between 5% and 20% of the marriages may be fraudulent.

"We met only a handful of times," Hayes said of her marriage. "We never lived together. I have not had any contact with him since the divorce finalized in 2002."

Hayes did not disclose the marriage until prompted by Portland's Willamette Week. She told the newspaper that she didn't tell the governor about the marriage until Wednesday afternoon.

The admission has certainly spiced up the state's gubernatorial race, in which Kitzhaber was considered to be leading over Republican state Rep. Dennis Richardson.

Hayes said when she told Kitzhaber about the marriage, "he was stunned and he was hurt," but he is now standing by her.

"And I will be eternally grateful for the beautiful, loving way he has supported me in this," she told reporters.

The governor's office had no immediate comment.

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