Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon announced his resignation Friday amid an ethics scandal involving his fiancee – ending a bizarre few days of uncertainty over his fate.
“I have always had the deepest respect for the remarkable institution that is the Oregon Legislature; and for the office of the Governor,” Kitzhaber said in a statement. “And I cannot in good conscience continue to be the element that undermines it. I have always tried to do the right thing and now the right thing to do is to step aside.”
“I understand that I have become a liability to the very institutions and policies to which I have dedicated my career and, indeed, my entire adult life,” the 67-year-old governor added.
Kitzhaber said his resignation becomes effective on Feb. 18 at 10 a.m., at which point he’ll be succeeded by Secretary of State Kate Brown. Both Kitzhaber and Brown are Democrats.
“This is a sad day for Oregon,” Brown said in a statement Friday evening. “As you can imagine, there is a lot of work to be done between now and Wednesday.”
Later Friday, federal prosecutors issued a three-page subpoena requesting state records and electronic communications pertaining to Kitzhaber, his fiancee, and 15 administration staffers, according to the Associated Press. The subpoena also orders the state Department of Administrative Services to appear before a federal grand jury in March.
Kitzhaber also slammed the media for what he described as a rush to judgment. While apologizing to his constituents,
“I must also say that it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved,” he said.
Kitzhaber denied breaking any laws or acting dishonestly. But he said he’s stepping down because the “escalating media frenzy” over allegations that his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, had inappropriately benefited from their relationship “has clearly reached the point of no return.”
And he took a not-so-veiled shot at the leading Democrats who in recent days had abandoned him. “Even more troubling – and on a very personal level as someone who has given 35 years of public service to Oregon – is that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value,” he said.
The announcement ends a tumultuous 48-hour period in Oregon’s normally staid political life. On Wednesday, msnbc reported that Brown had unexpectedly returned to Oregon from a Washington, D.C., conference where she was scheduled to appear on a panel, setting off a fevered speculation that Kitzhaber’s resignation was imminent. But the governor appeared that afternoon to say he wasn’t stepping down.
Brown said in a statement released Thursday that Kitzhaber had summoned her back to Oregon for a face-to-face meeting, only to ask her when she got there why she had come – behavior Brown described as “strange.” Brown called the situation “bizarre and unprecedented.” Several Oregon news outlets reported that Kitzhaber had planned to resign, only to change his mind.
But on Thursday Kitzhaber’s position deteriorated further, with several top Democratic legislative leaders, as well as Treasurer Ted Wheeler, calling on the governor to step down.
The scandal that felled Kitzhaber centered on allegations that his fiancee inappropriately used her access to the governor in her work as a clean energy consultant. In recent weeks, it was reported that Hayes was paid $118,000 by a Washington, D.C., clean energy group while advising the governor on energy issues. Another report found that two close associates of Kitzhaber helped create paid jobs for Hayes with clean energy groups that were working to influence energy policy.
The state’s Attorney General said this week she’s opened an investigation into the reports. And the FBI has reportedly also opened a probe of its own.
The Democratic and Republican Governors Associations both released statements Friday afternoon saying Kitzhaber made the right decision to resign, with DGA Executive Director Elisabeth Pearson praising Kate Brown’s “long record of making government more accountable” and RGA Communications Director Jon Thompson slamming the governor’s “plainly unethical conduct” and pointing a finger at Brown and other Oregon Democrats who “stayed silent for months.”
Last fall, Hayes, 49, admitted at a tearful press conference that in 1997 she had been paid $5,000 to marry an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant seeking a green card. The two never lived together and divorced in 2002.