Kitzhaber changes his mind, won't resign

Gov. John Kitzhaber, left, and Secretary of State Kate Brown
Gov. John Kitzhaber, left, and Secretary of State Kate Brown

Associated Press

SALEM - With an ethics scandal weighing him down, embattled Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber had decided he would resign, telling some of his aides he was stepping down and even summoning his would-be-successor back to the state, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation. But then the Democratic governor changed his mind.

It's not clear why Kitzhaber, a four-term governor who handily won re-election in November, decided he would stay put despite mounting criticism over allegations his fiancée used his office to win contracts for her consulting business. He issued a vague statement on Wednesday explaining he was not resigning.

“I was elected to do a job for the people of this great state and I intend to continue to do so,” Kitzhaber said, repeating a refrain he's uttered at least twice before in the past two weeks.

Newspaper editorial boards, including the News-Register, and Republicans have been criticizing Kitzhaber and calling for him to leave office over allegations involving his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.

Hayes has been under increasing scrutiny since October when a series of reports chronicled her work for organizations with an interest in Oregon public policy, which came as she served as an unpaid adviser in the governor's office.

The focus initially led Hayes to reveal that she accepted about $5,000 to illegally marry an immigrant seeking immigration benefits in the 1990s. Later, she acknowledged purchasing a remote property with the intent to illegally grow marijuana.

Kitzhaber has denied any wrongdoing, saying he and Hayes took steps to avoid conflicts of interest. Though questions about Hayes have swirled for months, the pressure on Kitzhaber intensified in recent weeks after newspapers raised questions about whether Hayes reported all her income to on her tax returns.

In early February, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she was launching a criminal investigation.

A fiercely private person, Kitzhaber has been forced to answer embarrassing and personal questions about his relationship. In response to questions at a news conference last month, Kitzhaber told reporters that he's in love with Hayes, but he's not blinded by it.

The three people with direct knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Kitzhaber told some of his aides on Sunday that he was going to resign. The three people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the private discussions.

On Tuesday, Kitzhaber asked Secretary of State Kate Brown, who would be next in line to become governor, to rush back to Oregon from a conference in Washington, D.C., the three people said.

Brown's abrupt and unexplained return to Oregon sparked speculation that Kitzhaber planned to quit. But hours later, the governor issued the statement saying he would stay put.

With the scandal surrounding Kitzhaber overshadowing the state legislative session, which began last week, the governor met separately with Democratic legislative leaders Tuesday.

He told the Portland TV station KGW that he wanted to discuss how his presence would affect the legislative agenda.

Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, both Democrats, declined to say what was discussed, but Courtney indicated that it was a difficult meeting.

“That was not a ‘Hi, how are you’ meeting,” said Courtney, who, like Kitzhaber, is among the state's most enduring political figures. “I'm not smooth today, I'm not cool today. I don't have the nice cookie-cutter press release statement today.”

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