Former Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state ethics commission agreed: He did not intend to break Oregon’s ethics laws.
But to quote a Latin maxim, “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.” And that is where Kitzhaber and the ethics commission disagree.
Kitzhaber may not have intended to use his official position to financially benefit himself or his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. But he did too little to prevent conflicts of interest – real or perceived. The Oregon Government Ethics Commission voted unanimously to accept 10 preliminary findings that he committed ethics violations.
Three years after Kitzhaber resigned as governor amid the ethics turmoil, other federal and state investigations have ended without charges. Instead, the controversy has come down to these 10 alleged civil violations. And even a commission investigator squirmed over one – whether Kitzhaber unwittingly benefitted from frequent flier upgrades.
Most of the allegations revolve around Hayes’ unique position. This likely was the first time a first lady served as an official policy adviser to her partner, the Oregon governor. At the same time, she continued her private consulting work, often on the same issues as Kitzhaber was pursuing.
She erred by intertwining her roles. He erred by allowing that to happen, as he conceded to the ethics commission.
Kitzhaber’s contrition is belated but welcome. Still, he doesn’t seem to fully “get it.” Like many powerful people, he has fallen into the trough of certitude, believing his integrity invincible.
“I have withstood the scrutiny of eight elections and 26 years in public office and this is the first time that my integrity has ever been questioned,” he told the ethics commission. “I have certainly made my share of mistakes but using my office for the purpose of obtaining financial gain or avoiding financial detriment is not one of them.”
In the previous century, such certitude undermined another well-known Oregon politician – former governor and then-Sen. Mark O. Hatfield. He, too, initially treated allegations of ethical missteps – ones involving his wife’s business, his family finances and his acceptance of gifts – as unwarranted assaults on his character. He, too, later recognized his lapses in judgment and sought to make amends.
The Kitzhaber and Hatfield cases are not parallel in facts and magnitudes but in the mistaken faith in one’s ethical infallibility.
Kitzhaber’s transgression was not what he did. It was what he didn’t do: Establish and protect strong ethical walls separating his fiancée’s public and private roles.
That failure cost him his governorship.