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.