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Political pressure squeezes 'struggling' Kitzhaber

Both Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek agree that the Governor should resign


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Oregon Democrats have been calling for the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber.Gov. John Kitzhaber is under renewed pressure by Democratic legislative leaders to resign in response to the influence-peddling allegations against him and first lady Cylvia Hayes.

Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem says he and House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland urged the Democratic chief executive to resign — just one month into his fourth term — when they met in the governor’s private office Thursday.

Kitzhaber’s response? “The man is struggling,” Courtney told reporters afterward, though he declined to speculate about the mental state of Kitzhaber, who turns 68 on March 5.

Kotek was also unsure of Kitzhaber’s plans.

“I really don’t know,” Kotek said. “I really don’t know. He did not give any indication either way.”

Although Courtney and Kotek agreed Kitzhaber should resign, they cited different reasons.

“It has become clear to both of us that the ongoing investigations surrounding the governor and Cylvia Hayes have resulted in a loss of the people’s trust, and have undermined his ability to effectively lead as our state’s chief executive,” Kotek said.

Courtney says he and Kotek made the same request when they met Tuesday. Kotek said Kitzhaber requested the Tuesday meeting.

Courtney says he had expected Kitzhaber to announce his intentions Wednesday, when Secretary of State Kate Brown — the next in line in succession — flew back from a conference in Washington, D.C. But instead, Kitzhaber — through his lawyer, his press office, and in comments with Portland television station KOIN — said he had no such intent.

Courtney says his call for resignation was less about the specific allegations and more about the distractions they cause, even though lawmakers are moving ahead with budgets and bills.

“It just seems to me that the perceptions and distractions have reached a point” where Kitzhaber cannot interact with lawmakers effectively, he says.

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, in a separate statement, also called on Kitzhaber to resign.

Although four governors have resigned since Oregon statehood in 1859, the most recent instance was in 1952 – when Gov. Douglas McKay was appointed U.S. interior secretary — and none has involved a scandal.

The most recent mid-term vacancy for Oregon governor was in 1956, when Paul Patterson died of a heart attack.

Kitzhaber was sworn in for a fourth term on Jan. 12.

Back after voter rejection of his proposed tax overhaul in May 1973, Gov. Tom McCall vowed he would resign, but was talked out of it. He completed his term in January 1975.

Changed nature

Former Gov. Ted Kulongoski says the nature of the allegations against Kitzhaber and Hayes changed significantly Monday, after Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said her agency was conducting an investigation of potential criminal violations.

In turn, he says, that changes the stakes involved.

Kitzhaber and Hayes have reportedly retained criminal lawyers, separate from the lawyers who were jointly representing Kitzhaber and Hayes in ethics-law complaints.

Kulongoski was attorney general from 1993 to 1997, before he was elected governor himself in 2002 to succeed Kitzhaber. He left office in 2011, after Kitzhaber was elected to a third nonconsecutive term.

Kulongoski says he is not advising Kitzhaber. He says he sent Kitzhaber an email a few weeks ago offering assistance, but that Kitzhaber declined in a response.

The Department of Justice, led by an independently elected attorney general, normally investigates potential criminal violations, which are of a different magnitude than the ethics-law complaints against Kitzhaber and Hayes that were pending before the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

Under the ethics law, the commission must suspend its proceedings when the Department of Justice informs it that a criminal investigation is pending — and commission director Ron Bersin said Thursday that he received such notice Wednesday.

Unlike the ethics commission, which has deadlines in the law to determine its proceedings, the Department of Justice has no such limits.

Ethics-law violations are punishable by a maximum $5,000 fine on each count, plus personal gain. The law bars use of public office for personal financial gain.

A resignation by Kitzhaber, if if comes to that, would not necessarily cancel either set of proceedings.

Other options

Other options under state law are a voluntary leave of absence — in which case Brown would step in for Kitzhaber for a defined period, then allow him to resume his duties — and a legal defense fund.

The Oregon Constitution provides for succession not only upon the death or resignation of a governor, but also upon a “disability,” which it does not define.

Under a 2009 change, which Kulongoski requested when he was governor, state law specifies how a governor may take a voluntary leave for disability or be determined to be incapacitated and unable to do the job.

The provision for voluntary leave allows the governor to estimate the period of disability, provide for temporary succession, and set a return to duty.

Kulongoski says he asked for the provision to cover instances such as surgeries like the eye operation he had in 2010. Although the transfer of authority was brief, his recovery barred him from making a scheduled trade mission to China.

Kulongoski says he never contemplated a scenario such as the one Kitzhaber faces.

The changes were really prompted by a 2007 national-security exercise in Portland, when Kulongoski says there was a debate over who could declare the governor incapacitated. At that time, just three people could make such a declaration – the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, the “dean” of Oregon Health & Science University, and the medical director of the Oregon State Hospital.

A 2007 overhaul of the Oregon’s government ethics law — whose floor manager was Brown, then the Senate majority leader — does allow for public officials to set up legal defense funds separate from campaign funds.

Bersin says lawyers for the governor made inquiries via email Wednesday.

“We have been asked to provide information, but we have not received a request” to create such a fund, Bersin says.

He says the provision is rarely invoked.

pwong@PamplinMedia.com

(503) 385-4899 or 363-0888

twitter.com/capitolwong

Hillary Borrud and Peter Wong are reporters with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.

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