SALEM — The Oregon Ethics Commission has found that former Gov. John Kitzhaber violated state ethics law 10 times.
The commission unanimously voted to pursue 10 out of 11 alleged violations by the former governor who resigned in February 2015 amid an influence-peddling scandal.
“In 26 years of elected office, he had all kinds of experience in facing these issues,” said Commissioner Charles Starr. “It’s just unfortunate that he has come to this. I am convinced he is an honorable man, and he didn’t purpose to do this, but the outcome was quite obvious.”
Before the vote, Kitzhaber addressed the commission and apologized to his family, friends, former employees and the people of Oregon for his missteps, but he vigorously denied that he ever intentionally used his office to profit himself or first lady Cylvia Hayes’s environmental consulting business.
“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,” Kitzhaber said. “To arrive at the conclusion that somehow, at the end of my long career in public service I would suddenly stumble on a streak of corruption, is simply untrue and there is no evidence to support it. 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.”
The “preliminary findings” of violation were based on a report by state ethics investigators released earlier this week and prompted a period during which Kitzhaber may appeal the findings to an administrative law judge.
He faces up to $50,000 in fines for the violations. The commission won’t issue fines until an appeals process is completed and they vote on a “final order” of violations. Until that point, negotiations for a settlement agreement can continue.
The commission Friday dismissed one proposed violation of misuse of office related to using a staffer to pet sit for the First Couple when they left for personal trips. Kitzhaber said he had known the staffer for 15 years and that she had volunteered to care for the pets without pay.
Kitzhaber violated law prohibiting use of his office for personal financial gain when he took actions that benefited his fiancée, Hayes’s environmental consulting firm, 3E Strategies, investigators wrote in the 135-page report released Wednesday.
The former governor included Hayes’s income from the firm in his household income in 2011-13 on statements of economic interest, investigators said.
He also failed to publicly disclose his potential conflicts of interest and actual conflicts in several instances, as required by state law, they said.
Kitzhaber was “personally responsible to ensure that he did not engage in any policy decisions, discussions, speeches, meetings, directives to staff or official actions that would further the financial interest of 3E Strategies,” investigators wrote.
However, Kitzhaber attended meetings for which Hayes was either being paid or was seeking contracts with environmental advocacy groups and promoted and advanced her business, they wrote. For instance, he gave a speech in May 2013 at a planning retreat at the governor’s residence, Mahonia Hall, to discuss transitioning Oregon to a different economic measurement formula that factors in environmental health. Hayes was being paid by public policy organization Demos for facilitating the meeting.
Kitzhaber asked that Hayes be included in correspondence, meetings and policymaking on environmental matters for which she was seeking funding and being paid.
For example, he gave her access to the closed-door Pacific Coast Collaborative Leaders Forum in Vancouver, British Columbia, in March 2012, while she was being paid a $118,000 fellowship with the Clean Economy Development Center.
“I believe Gov. Kitzhaber was not thinking, ‘Hmm, how can I get money?’ … I don’t think he was thinking, ‘Hmm, how can I get Cylvia Hayes money,’” said Commissioner Richard Burke.
But under state law, it’s irrelevant whether the violations took place on purpose or by accident, Burke said.
Kitzhaber and Hayes also used staff resources to book personal travel and help Hayes with her business activities, according to the report. Finally, Kitzhaber violated a state prohibition on public officials accepting gifts worth $50 or more apiece when he accepted Premier Platinum status from United Airlines, which was valued at more than $4,000, the report showed.
Kitzhaber testified Friday that he was unaware he had received platinum status from the airline.
He resigned under pressure by state lawmakers Feb. 18, 2015, a little more than a month into his fourth term as governor, as federal and state investigations into his conduct intensified.
In November, the commission rejected the proposed agreement with Kitzhaber that would have required him to pay $1,000 to settle the case. At that time, Kitzhaber admitted he violated state ethics laws on four occasions and said he did so unintentionally. He said he did not disclose a conflict of interest related to Hayes’ paid consulting contracts based on the advice of his attorney at the time.
News of the proposed settlement earlier that month spawned criticism that the penalty was too lenient on Kitzhaber’s lack of accountability during his role as the state’s highest elected official.
Friday’s decision will send a message to public officials, and they will take more care, Burke said.
The commission in January found that Hayes violated state ethics laws 22 times while she served as first lady. The commission has yet to issue a final order and assess fines in her case.