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AG review of Kitz/Hayes conflicts could push ethics probe aside

ATTORNEY GENERAL ELLEN ROSENBLUMSALEM — The Oregon Ethics Commission will likely have to place its investigation of ethics complaints against Gov. John Kitzhaber and first lady Cylvia Hayes on hold, now that Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum launched a criminal investigation of the couple’s activities.

Ron Bersin, executive director of the commission, said Tuesday that state law calls for the commission to halt its civil inquiry if prosecutors launch a criminal investigation.

“If there is a criminal investigation, statute requires that we suspend our inquiry,” Bersin said.

Kristina Edmunson, a spokeswoman for Rosenblum, said the investigation opened by the attorney general Friday is criminal in nature. That means details of the overlap between Hayes’ paid contracts and her unpaid work as a state energy and economic development adviser could remain under wraps for a longer period.

The ethics commission was expected to decide at a March 13 meeting whether to proceed with a full-blown investigation of Kitzhaber and Hayes. At that point, ethics investigators’ reports and other records would become public, regardless of whether commissioners decided to pursue the investigation.

In contrast, according to media reports, Rosenblum stopped the release of public records for the duration of at least one similar case, her investigation of then-Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen.

Rosenblum has provided only brief comments about Kitzhaber and Hayes, but she did say in a statement last week that recent allegations against the governor and first lady are “very serious — and troubling.” The Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau reported on Jan. 27 that Hayes was paid $118,000 early in Kitzhaber’s third term to serve as a fellow for a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has done political work in Oregon. Hayes had not included that income on tax returns she provided to other news organizations last fall, Willamette Week reported. That was followed by a report in The Oregonian that Kitzhaber associates, who worked on his 2010 campaign and were later hired to work in his administration, helped Hayes to secure contracts.

The Oregon Republican Party and then-state Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem, filed complaints against Kitzhaber and Hayes last fall asking the ethics commission to investigate reports that Hayes used her public position to benefit her consulting business, including by tasking a state employee with scheduling for her business.

Bersin said he had not heard from the attorney general’s office, and “in the absence of confirmation that is a criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office, we are still moving forward.”

Bersin said if the ethics commission suspends its investigation, that will only last until the conclusion of the criminal investigation. “And then we will take it back up.”

Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.