Kitzhaber legacy: Chicago on the Willamette

Scott Jorgensen_thb

by W. Scott Jorgensen

The aftermath of former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s resignation in February was surprisingly quiet, and it has been business as usual at the state capitol in Salem ever since. It was almost as if that whole bizarre series of events had never transpired in the first place.

For his part, Kitzhaber had largely dropped out of the public eye, and understandably so. Kitzhaber sightings have become increasingly rare, though he was spotted at a Starbucks in Northwest Portland in early May and had his picture snapped. Aside from the photographer, all indications are that nobody else even recognized him.

Here’s the ultimate public figure, a longtime chief executive of the entire enormous state government apparatus, and now he’s just some random guy in a coffeeshop, wearing sweats and glasses and going over a pile of papers. In his case, it’s almost tempting to wonder what kind of papers they would be—legal documents of some sort or another, perhaps?

Kitzhaber wasn’t out of the spotlight just yet, however, as a series of recent articles has come as a reminder that the swirl of scandals that forced his resignation and tarnished his legacy and reputation are nowhere near finished playing themselves out yet.

One week after the relatively innocuous story about his trip to Starbucks, the Washington Times published a particularly damning story reminding a national audience why and how Kitzhaber got himself into so much trouble. Perhaps a reminder was necessary, as the screaming headlines about federal investigations had largely stopped when he resigned in disgrace weeks after being sworn in for an historic fourth term as governor.

These revelations had nothing to do with former so-called “first lady” Cylvia Hayes, her apparently sordid past or the allegations that she used that position to further her own private business interests. Rather, they were about the colossal $300 million blunder that was the state’s failed health care exchange website.

Kitzhaber, his staff and his party had been quick to point the finger at software developer Oracle for the catastrophe. But the article points out that the website could have been working in early 2014 with some additional training and testing. Instead, the decision was made to pull the plug on it and move over to the federal exchange. This turned out to be a decision made entirely for the sake of political expediency, and by staffers on his re-election campaign.

None of this went unnoticed by the members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. A letter was sent to Kitzhaber the same day he resigned stating that Congress was, indeed, investigating the misspending of federal funds on the exchange. The use of campaign staff to coach a witness who testified before the committee also didn’t go over too well, and neither did his administration’s attempt to delete emails from state servers days before he left office.

The former first couple did get some semblance of good news towards the end of May, as a judge ruled that Hayes could hold on to some of her e-mails. She had claimed, through her attorneys, that their release would violate her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, and the judge agreed. Of course, none of this is a great overall defense for anyone claiming to be innocent, but it was enough to serve the intended purpose of keeping their contents from the public.

A couple of days later, there were more bombshells. These took the form of A Willamette Week article by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nigel Jaquiss about the state official who leaked Kitzhaber’s emails to him instead of deleting them. He was rewarded for his efforts by a “perp walk” out of his office and the threat of 6,000 charges of official misconduct unless he resigned his position.

In stark contrast, the Kitzhaber crony who threw the whistleblower under the bus gets to start a new $185,000 position with the City of Portland on June 1, despite being among the many state officials subpoenaed as part of the ongoing investigations.

It became obvious a couple of days later why officials were so eager to threaten the whistleblower with so many criminal charges. It turned out to be a case of literal nepotism, as Willamette Week disclosed that Kitzhaber’s nephew was and is working for the same district attorney’s office that had made those threats.

All of this may come as somewhat of a surprise to many Oregonians. We have long prided ourselves as being better than this. For decades, we’ve sought to hold our state up as an example of transparent, ethical, corruption-free government. We would see scandals take place in other states and thank the heavens that such things could never, ever happen here.

Thanks to the actions of John Kitzhaber, Cylvia Hayes and their friends and allies who are still very much in power, that myth has been completely shattered. The ultimate consequence is that this will change the way we think about ourselves and the state that we love so much.

Perhaps, in the annuls of history, 2015 will be known as the year that Oregon truly lost its innocence. Prior to now, it would have been unthinkable to many that our beloved state could be associated with such blatant and high-level corruption in our public institutions. But it turned out that we were only kidding ourselves.

We thought we were clean, innocent, pure Oregon. The truth was much more painful, as decades of one-party rule in our executive branch seem to have turned this beautiful, majestic place in Chicago on the Willamette.

The people of this state deserve so much better than this, and I hope they never stop hoping for a future in which a similar set of circumstances could never possibly repeat themselves. In the meantime, though, I get the feeling there will be plenty of stories and revelations that have yet to come out that will show us exactly how bad and widespread this corruption actually has been.

None of this should stop Oregonians from demanding more from their institutions and leaders. If anything, it should have the opposite effect, and perhaps we can someday reclaim the innocence that we once had. And maybe we’ll be smart enough to guard it with a newfound sense of vigilance to ensure that nothing like this will ever happen again.

Article originally appeared in the Ridenbaugh Press blog – republished with permission

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Crime & Sentencing, Cylvia Hayes, Ethics, Gov. Kitzhaber, Government corruption | 8 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Bob Clark

    Sorry, but the electorate has very short memories overall, and in fact, are easily distracted by national fads of the day. So, I doubt very much anything substantive changes; rather, corruption will continue probably unabated.

    Just to add support to my point here at the national level. The body of evidence is clear Hillary Clinton is unethical, just up to the point of being illegal or just illegal enough not to be prosecuted; and yet, the national electorate is split on her as to becoming the next president.

    The hiring of Michael Jordan to run Portland’s water bureau reflects the continual dysfunction of City of Portland governance. Yet neither a peep from local Portland leaders or public opposition.

    Kitzhaber is the exception to the rule, most government official corruption in Oregon continues on because of the inertia of raising opposition, latent in our structure of governance.

    • Omen

      Spot on! The OregoNonsense tide must be turned back sooner, rather than allowing more *hit to flow in.
      Really now, as the River Willamette ‘feces’ renaming as a *hitCago” honoring the Dem organized crime streaming effluent, never forget the Tom McCall counter current and get the cojones going to rid the pestilence.

  • Rob Harris

    Good article. Though I’m more left than the author, I’ve made this same argument for some time. Oregon leaders simply don’t accept the idea that they or their friends and fellow party members could be corrupted. After all were Oregonians! Because we don’t believe it could exist too many of us, particularly the party faithful, fail to spot corruption when it happens, or turn a blind eye, or even make up excuses. Sometimes they even attack those who are blowing the whistle.

  • Jack Lord God

    Oregon Republicans need to get a bit less timid. They are so scared of appearing to be mean or offending people that we literally had Kitzhaber sailing to victory when a solid month before the election it was clear it was very possible he would be indicted.

    This last election you had picture perfect conditions for winning an election. Democrats in huge disfavor nationally to such an extent that they suffered catastrophic losses. Couple that with a a strong case for absolute corruption with Kitzhaber, known a solid month before the election, and a record of abysmal economic progress and you literally have the absolute most perfect conditions we will ever see in a lifetime for Republicans to win in state elections.

    What did Republicans do with that huge advantage? They tried to play nice nice. Offered no discernible change in vision from the Democrats and thus gave no real reason to vote for them. Thus we got re election of the same corrupt bunch that has bankrupted the state, charted a clear course for disaster with the recent PERS court decision,

    So my question to the Oregon Republican party is, do you think this strategy of Democrat lite is working?

    Do you think it is possible to do worse than you have been? You control nothing, so how is hanging the “please don’t kick me” sign working out?

    Republicans just had another item served up to them on a silver platter you know. Floyd Prozanski rushed through his dopey background check bill and then refused to even consider extending SOL on rape. Wow, that’s golden. Nobody agrees with that crap. Yet where are Republicans? I don’t know, cowering somewhere I suppose.

    Maybe try something different, Try being a little bold and pointing out how for a parent with kids in school, Mississippi offers a better school system. Maybe point out how New Orleans city government is arguably less corrupt. Maybe, just maybe, try a different strategy, because even if it fails, its not like Republicans have lost anything. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose after all.

    • HBguy

      This is the thinking that will make the GOP even less relevant than they are. Do you believe that “nobody agrees” with the background check bill? That extending the SOL from 6 to 12 years – instead of 20 – is some sort of major paradigm shiftin faux pas?
      Read the most recent article in the OregonOnion on education. They did a study and yes Oregon schools are below average. But much better than Mississippis.
      And Dennis Richardson was clearly a very conservative candidate who had much different positions on many issues than Kitz. There was a clear choice between the Democratic philosophy, and a conservative GOP philosophy.
      What really rankles me is that the Oregon GOP fails to do it’s part in the two party system that is inevitable in US election laws. If you want to really challenge the Dems pass a law that would provide proportional representation in our state legislature. But that wont’ happen, or any other major change in our elections, because the narrow base of the D’s and R’s like controlling our elections by controlling the primaries.
      The party faithful don’t want any moderates to pollute their primaries, then they don’t understand why those moderate independent voters don’t vote for their ideologically pure candidates.
      It’s simply stunning that the idealogues don’t understand the cause and effect.

    • Eric Blair

      “Floyd Prozanski rushed through his dopey background check bill and then refused to even consider extending SOL on rape.

      Actually, he did consider it. He opted for 12 years instead of the 20 advocated for by victims, but that’s still extending the SOL from 6 years.

      • Karl Smackler

        Apparently, the shtick up Prozanski’s posterior insufficient to stem the foul air emanating from his gopher digging’s

  • Ron Swaren

    I would agree more with the general cronyism charge against Oregon leaders, than heaping disapproval on Cylvia Hayes. Obviously she was not ready for the spotlight, but in ordinary, plain folks culture there are lots and lots of people who fall way short of the ethical level required to play in politics.Just think of the Oregonians who have made it into Jay Leno’s repertoire for their failings of judgement.

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