Over the past three years as Oregonians witnessed the spectacular fall of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, it was hard at times to identify moments of clarity in a vast sea of gray.
Last week brought one of those moments. After numerous, forceful denials that he’d done anything wrong, Kitzhaber admitted publicly that he broke state ethics laws when he failed to fully report the entities that paid his fiancée around $200,000 for private consulting work over a three-year period while he was governor.
In addressing the four violations of state ethics laws, Kitzhaber blamed most of the mistakes on his former general counsel and agreed to pay a proposed $1,000 fine.
Thankfully, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission took one of its strongest stances to date, voting 7-1 to reject the proposed settlement and its puny, pathetic fine. Members, including the relatively new vice chair, Alison Kean, asked important and pointed questions that led to a rich debate on the proposed settlement. And ultimately, led to the surprising vote.
In doing so, commission members delivered on their job to safeguard the trust that the public has in its leaders.
Oregonians must be able to rely on the government watchdog to detect these abuses, consider them in context and take appropriate measures to be sure they’re not repeated. A $1,000 fine - agreed upon by agency staff, Kitzhaber and his attorney — would have sent the wrong message to both current and future office holders and undermined the government watchdog’s credibility and mission.
We must not forget this was Oregon’s highest ranking public official who violated four ethics laws, transgressions that could result in a maximum fine of $20,000.
In a Nov. 15 Facebook post, published two days before the commission voted on the settlement, Kitzhaber wrote breaking the ethics law was “unintentional.” He didn’t perceive a conflict of interest in fiancée Cylvia Hayes’ work, he wrote, explaining he thought that she was simply trying to “educate people” rather than “to shape or influence state policy.”
But it was his job to know. That’s especially true considering Kitzhaber had opened his office to Hayes and named her an adviser, a role covering the very political issues on which her private consulting business focused.
Commission members will return to this issue at their next meeting in January. As they prepare, the commission’s nine members should recall how Kitzhaber claimed ignorance over these past problems. He seems to have forgotten that some of his highest-ranking aides voiced concerns at various points about Hayes’ involvement in policy work. At one point, his chief of staff pointedly argued that Hayes shouldn’t work on state policies addressing issues for which she was paid in her consulting work.
At the time, Kitzhaber simply disagreed.
The commission should also recall that while still serving as governor, Kitzhaber initially attempted to evade their scrutiny. Kitzhaber’s emails, which were leaked by a state employee, showed that he and his attorney intended to argue Hayes wasn’t a public official and therefore didn’t need to follow the rules that forbid her from personally benefiting from her public work. The courts have since established that Hayes was a public official.
Kitzhaber and his attorney also planned to argue that she wasn’t a member of his household, meaning he had no obligation to report her income on his ethics forms. Yet Kitzhaber had listed her for years on those very forms as a member of his household.
In the December 2014 email, Kitzhaber wrote about the ethics commission: “We will convey that we are willing to take this all the way and have a strong case for prevailing. But the end game is not actually to have the complaints dismissed but rather to negotiate a stipulated settlement agreement in which we might acknowledge some minor mistakes we may have made and have the matter resolved at the March meeting. Do I have that right?”
Thankfully for Oregonians, the current commission made sure he did not.