Feb 12, 2015 10:46 PM

Top Democrats call on Oregon governor to resign

The Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) Oregon's top Democrats urged Gov. John Kitzhaber to resign Thursday, saying he cannot lead the state effectively amid a growing ethics scandal involving his fiancee, a green-energy consultant suspected of using their relationship to land contracts for her business.

Senate President Peter Courtney said he and House Speaker Tina Kotek asked Kitzhaber, a Democrat who recently started his fourth term, to step down.

"I finally said, 'This has got to stop,'" Courtney told reporters after he and Kotek met with the governor. "I don't know what else to do right now. It seems to be escalating. It seems to be getting worse and worse."

The state treasurer also joined in the call for Kitzhaber to relinquish his office.

"Unfortunately, the current situation has become untenable, and I cannot imagine any scenario by which things improve," said Ted Wheeler, another Democrat. "Oregon deserves a governor who is fully focused on the duties of state."

Their statements came hours after Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown said she had a "strange" and contradictory conversation with Kitzhaber about succeeding him as governor.

Brown said the governor had asked her to fly back to Oregon from a conference in Washington, D.C., but when she arrived, he asked why she had returned.

"This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation," Brown said in a statement.

She said Kitzhaber told her he's not resigning, but then began a discussion about a transition.

Under Oregon law, the secretary of state automatically becomes governor if the governor gives up his job.

Kitzhaber told some of his aides he was resigning and summoned Brown from Washington, then changed his mind while she was traveling, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation.

They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about private discussions.

Questions about the governor's fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, have swirled for months, but the pressure on Kitzhaber intensified in recent weeks after newspapers raised questions about whether Hayes reported all her income on her tax returns.

Neither the governor nor Hayes has been charged with any wrongdoing. But earlier this month, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she was launching a criminal investigation. Late Thursday, she ordered Hayes to release emails from private accounts that discuss state business following a public records request from The Oregonian. Hayes has seven days to comply or appeal.

The governor issued a vague statement 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.

The allegations all arise from his fiancee, who met Kitzhaber in 2002 after enduring a rough-and-tumble life.

She told The Oregonian in a 2011 profile that she grew up in a ramshackle house near Seattle and left home at 16, staying with friends until she finished high school.

By the time she was 29, she was a twice-divorced graduate student at Evergreen State College. She supported herself in part with the proceeds of an illegal sham marriage to an Ethiopian immigrant in 1997 while plotting with a boyfriend to grow marijuana.

Last year, she acknowledged buying property in rural Washington state for the pot scheme but said the grow effort never materialized.

In 1998, while trying to escape a relationship she described as abusive, she went to her boyfriend's house carrying a stun gun. He beat her with it, according to court records. Hayes packed up her belongings and moved to central Oregon, living in a tent on federal land while finishing her thesis, according to the Oregonian profile.

She set up an environmental nonprofit and got involved in politics, meeting influential people, and in 2002 was the Democratic nominee for a legislative district in Bend. She met Kitzhaber in the waning days of his second term as governor when he campaigned for her.

Hayes lost her race. Kitzhaber left office at the beginning of 2003 and announced days later that he and his wife were divorcing. Later, he and Hayes reconnected, and their relationship became romantic despite a 20-year age difference. He is 67. She is 47.

In 2010, after eight years out of office, Kitzhaber made a successful comeback bid and became Oregon's only governor to serve more than two terms. At his side was Hayes, who moved with him to the governor's mansion in Salem.

Hayes took an active role in Kitzhaber's administration. She used the title "first lady," though the two have never married, and ran public initiatives targeting poverty and hunger. Privately, she was a frequent presence at meetings.

Kitzhaber has said he and Hayes took steps to avoid conflicts of interest. A fiercely private person, the governor has been forced to answer embarrassing and personal questions about his relationship. At a news conference last month, he told reporters that he's in love with Hayes, but he's not blinded by it.

Also Thursday, a spokesman for the Department of Administrative Services, which maintains the state email archives, confirmed a newspaper report that the governor's office had asked that Kitzhaber's personal emails be deleted from the archives.

Matt Shelby said the agency had discovered Kitzhaber's personal emails were being mistakenly forwarded to the server and then informed Kitzhaber's office. He said the governor's office asked that personal emails be deleted from the server, and the agency said it could not do that. He said the governor's office is going through the emails to determine which are public records under Oregon law.

Reporters camped outside the governor's home were joined Thursday evening by Washington County sheriff's deputies. Oregon State Police provide security for Kitzhaber, but sheriff's Sgt. Bob Ray says the agency requested extra help because of the large media presence.


Follow Jonathan J. Cooper at http://twitter.com/jjcooper .


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