Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber faces call to resign amid scandal over fiancee

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and fiancee Cylvia Hayes before his swearing-in last month in Salem for a fourth term.
(Don Ryan / Associated Press)

It’s not a question an elected official wants to hear at a widely broadcast news conference about his official conduct, but it was one of the gentler ones thrown at Oregon’s embattled Gov. John Kitzhaber last week:

“Have you been blinded by love?”

His answer was almost beside the point, because on Wednesday, the largest newspaper in the Beaver State called on Kitzhaber to resign.

Tawdry allegations about his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes — that she had falsified tax forms and been paid consulting fees to influence her future husband, among many other charges — have dogged Kitzhaber. Now the Democratic governor faces the heat of a political firestorm that only seemed to grow as he kicked off his fourth term at Oregon’s helm.


“More ugliness may surface,” the Oregonian declared on its website, “but it should be clear by now to Kitzhaber that his credibility has evaporated to such a degree that he can no longer serve effectively as governor.”

Yet this is the same man who was reelected in November despite 11th-hour revelations that his fiancee had entered a fraudulent green-card marriage in 1997, receiving $5,000 to wed an Ethiopian national so that he could stay in the country. Hayes said in October, “He needed help and I needed financial support.” Of Kitzhaber, she said, “I will be eternally grateful for the beautiful, loving way he has supported me in this.”

Three months later, Kitzhaber’s political survival is no longer a given.

He has acknowledged that the allegations — and the state Ethics Commission investigation that they prompted — are a serious “distraction.” And he has vowed that Hayes “will have no policy role and no political role in the administration during the remaining four years of [his] term.”

William Lunch, a professor emeritus of political science at Oregon State University and long-term Oregon capital watcher, said that Kitzhaber’s current debacle was indeed “relevant to public policy,” but that it was also “the soap opera version of politics.”

“It’s mostly a story about his difficulties with her, and her failure to understand the limits of political spouses,” Lunch said of Oregon’s not-very-happy first couple. The situation, he added, “is not unique” to Kitzhaber.

That very point was raised at last Friday’s cringe-worthy news conference, which was called so that Kitzhaber could lay the public’s questions to rest.

“Governor,” said one very deep-voiced journalist, “less than a month ago the former governor of Virginia went to prison along with his wife for what seem like very similar reasons — taking favors from somebody in private business in an apparent attempt to influence the governor or to use the governor’s aura to be able to get more money. This seems very similar. What’s the difference?”

That in-your-face question was a reference to Republican Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who were convicted in federal court in Virginia on a plethora of corruption charges in a made-for-TV-movie of a trial. The ex-governor was sentenced to two years but remains free pending appeal; the former first lady is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20.

Among the arguments in their defense? That they hated each other so much by the time the crimes took place that they never would have talked enough to commit conspiracy.

Which makes some of the other questions put to the beleaguered Kitzhaber at that news conference a little more understandable.

“Governor, this has to be really hard on your relationship, because you’re getting constant allegations and accusations,” one reporter noted. “How do you keep it together, and do you have any regrets about entering into a relationship knowing what you know now?”

Asked another: “Is the marriage still on?”

And finally, to Kitzhaber’s back as he strode angrily out of the room: “Do you think you’ve been used?”

Obviously, that last one got no response.

On the other matters, however, Kitzhaber said he had “no regrets” about entering into “a personal relationship” with Hayes more than a decade ago. He loves her, he told reporters, she is “wonderful,” and “the marriage is still on, yes.”

But while the 67-year-old pol and the 47-year-old environmental consultant have lived together for several years, Kitzhaber told reporters that he was not really sure whether she was legally a member of his household.

Considering the allegations, that is more than just a quibble.

As the Oregonian said in its scathing editorial, “to recite every reported instance in which Hayes, ostensibly under Kitzhaber’s watchful eye, has used public resources, including public employee time and her ‘first lady’ title, in pursuit of professional gain would require far more space than we have here.”

Among the main allegations reported in the Oregon media:

• That from 2011 to 2012, Hayes received $118,000 through the Clean Economy Development Center in Washington, D.C., while serving as an unpaid energy advisor to her then-boyfriend.

• That Hayes did not account for that income on tax forms. And that Kitzhaber did not account for that money on his required ethics filings.

Kitzhaber said Friday that he reported all income properly, that he neither prepared nor reviewed Hayes’ tax forms, and that all questions about those forms should go to his fiancee, an “independent woman” currently traveling in Europe.

“We knew there was a gray area,” Kitzhaber said during last Friday’s grilling, “and we took intentional steps to try to clearly separate her volunteer activities as first lady from her paid professional work. And we’re fully cooperating with the Ethics Commission.”

Oh, and about that resignation question? Don’t hold your breath.

“I’m not going to consider resigning,” he said. “Of course not. I was elected by the people of this state to do a job, and I intend to do it.”