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Other views: Ethics matter to the people of Oregon

The Oregonian/OregonLive

Published on January 19, 2018 11:31AM

Ethics commissioners who reviewed the investigation into how Cylvia Hayes profited by braiding together her work as a private businesswoman and public official described what they found in direct and compelling words:

Profoundly disturbing. Crushing and disappointing. The worst of politics. A case study in what you are not supposed to do in public office.

Even more powerful was where Oregon Government Ethics Commission Chairwoman Alison Kean laid blame: “I want to make it really clear that I don’t think this is all on one person,” she said. “We may just have so much evidence on Ms. Hayes that it’s a little easier, but I think also this report is full of evidence that is applicable to the member of her household who was a public official and was the governor.”

After three years, we finally have the answers to the important questions about the abuse of public office that local media had been asking before John Kitzhaber was elected to his historic, if ever so short, fourth term. They were the right questions.

They were questions that weren’t always welcome in a state infatuated with its cowboy governor. Or in a state where one party has ruled lately and often seems comfortable sticking with the devil they know.

These were basic questions that the pair never asked of themselves. Maybe it was Kitzhaber’s hubris. Or Hayes’ blind ambition. But when the governor’s staff raised these issues, they were shot down by the chief executive of the state.

In his February 2015 resignation letter, Kitzhaber wrote that he was confident he hadn’t broken any laws. He wrote that “Oregonians will see that I have never put anything before my love for and commitment to Oregon and faithfully fulfilling the responsibilities of the public offices I have held.”

But he did, whether he’ll ever truly recognize that or not.

Kitzhaber compounded those violations of our collective trust when he and Hayes defiantly dismissed news stories and fought public records requests, both through stalled processes and in court. (Hayes is currently appealing the $124,837 judgment she still owes The Oregonian/OregonLive after losing her battle to keep her state-related emails private.)

Kitzhaber and Hayes attacked The Oregonian/OregonLive and other Portland media, claiming reports were inaccurate and vilifying reporters -- long before it was commonplace to label inconvenient facts as fake news.

The commission’s report drowns out that wrongheaded drumbeat.

In its 154 unyielding pages, the report confirms the allegations raised in various news reports. There was no line between Hayes’ private business and her public work. She earned generous contracts thanks to her title and her access to Oregon’s highest political official. It was Kitzhaber who put her in that position and, at various points, pushed his staff to help expand her role and reach.

Ethics Commissioner Richard Burke hit on one of the more critical points as he and other commissioners deliberated at a meeting last week: Kitzhaber and Hayes should have known better.

Burke pointed out that the commission sometimes handles conflict-of-interest violations by volunteer appointees and office-holders in small towns across the state. That wasn’t the case with Kitzhaber and his top advisers.

“These are sophisticated people,” Burke accurately described. “These are people who are capable of swimming in the shark tank. They are very, very sharp. They understand how government is supposed to work.”

As commissioners discussed, Kitzhaber and his staff identified the potential for ethical lapses and conflicts of interest at several points over the years but never sought guidance from the very agency created to help public officials navigate those waters.

For Oregon, there couldn’t be a better time for such a confirmation of the need for a strong, vibrant local press and increasingly aggressive watchdog agencies such as the Government Ethics Commission. Without those questions and pressure to produce public documents, the first couple likely would have pushed on with their ambitious plans, which called for further expansions of Hayes’ roles and responsibilities. Without this ruling, Kitzhaber and Hayes could have continued on with their misplaced criticisms and disingenuous narrative.

The ethics commission cemented its credibility late last year when it rejected a pathetic settlement with Kitzhaber that provided a mealy admission of guilt and a $1,000 fine. In coming months, commission members will revisit his case and decide whether to fine Hayes the maximum of $5,000 for each of her 22 various violations of state ethics and conflict of interest laws - a potential hit to her bank account of $110,000.

Oregon will be watching. This is the time to send a clear signal that we value integrity in our government and that ethics mean something in this state.


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