THE ONLY DRAMA left for Governor John Albert Kitzhaber, in the final hours of a historic fourth term aborted in the face of scandal, was whether he might extend to dozens of condemned inmates something that wasn't afforded his own suddenly vanquished political career: a stay of execution.
Death row pardons marked about the only unchecked power left for a governor who'd announced his resignation in bewildering disgrace just days before, having finally succumbed to a slow-burning scandal that began with questions about his office's handling of his fiancée's private consulting work.
Now on Wednesday, February 18, we'll know whether he acted or not. Because, by now, Kitzhaber's gone—having given way to his constitutionally appointed successor, Secretary of State Kate Brown.
Maybe you've been minding every drip and drop of the scandal. Or maybe last week's surge of events left you wondering what all the hubbub's about. You're not alone. How did Oregon—let alone Kitzhaber—find itself here so soon after last fall's election? Let's take a look.
WHAT DID KITZHABER DO?
That's a fine question. But it's more helpful to first ask "What did Kitzhaber's fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, (allegedly) do?"
Hayes is mostly accused of leveraging her access to the governor—and status as an unpaid but official state environmental adviser—to earn more than $200,000 as a private consultant working on green energy issues.
Back in October, Willamette Week drew first blood with a cover story accusing Hayes of collecting $85,000 in consulting fees for work that fell within her official state duties. And that's hardly a trifle. State law forbids public officials using their status to benefit themselves or their associates.
Later reports, by WW along with the Oregonian and EO Group/Pamplin Media, filled in an increasingly damning picture.
We learned that Hayes had used state materials and staffers to further her work. She also took a 2013 consulting trip to Seattle, on the public dime. And she revealed $118,000 in additional fees for work that overlapped her role as an adviser—income left off her 2012 personal income tax returns and never reported on state conflict-of-interest forms.
Then, this month, the O reported that two Kitzhaber associates had helped Hayes win some of her consulting work and that two of those aides eventually were hired to work in the governor's administration. The paper also uncovered emails showing Hayes leading efforts to implement a new state policy she was also being paid privately to push.
As for Kitzhaber... it's not clear whether he was kept in the dark about all of this, remained willfully ignorant, or was quietly complicit. Either way, as governor he's responsible for the conduct of his office—and there are signs his office softened some of its intended safeguards around Hayes' work. A spokeswoman who disparaged her was fired. Kitzhaber leaned on state officials on Hayes' behalf at times. He hired aides who had gotten Hayes jobs. He joined her on important foreign trip that led to her winning a contract.
It's also not clear how much he personally and directly benefited from Hayes' income, given that the two live together and plan to get married. The state attorney general has since opened a criminal investigation, joining a state ethics probe, and a sweeping public corruption probe by the US Department of Justice. Those investigations will all continue.
But Kitzhaber's most outrageous perceived sin? Just before the state criminal probe launched, his office asked staffers to purge thousands of his personal emails from state servers. It looked suspicious. Those staffers refused.
SO KITZHABER HAD TO RESIGN?
Not quite. Oregon is unique, nationally, in that it has no provisions for impeachment. Kitzhaber has insisted he and Hayes are innocent and he conceivably could have served, albeit under a cloud, as long as he had political backing. That was the case for weeks, even after the Oregonian's editorial board earned national notice by demanding his ouster earlier this month.
The trouble was Kitzhaber blundered away that benefit of the doubt.
He held a frustrating press conference on January 30, looking stressed, nervous, and besieged. Looking like maybe there was fire behind all the smoke billowing through media reports. People started muttering in public.
Then came the sequence that doomed him. After deciding on his own to resign, he called Brown late Tuesday, February 10, and asked her to fly back to Salem ASAP. She'd been presiding over a conference in Washington, DC.
But word leaked that Brown was coming back, unleashing a torrent of rumors. And while she was in the air, he reportedly changed his mind—issuing a statement saying he'd be sticking around.
On February 12, Brown twisted the knife with her own statement. She said Kitzhaber acted strangely when they finally met, asking her why she'd flown home in such a rush, never mind that he'd asked her to. She called the situation "bizarre."
Meanwhile, legislative leaders also were ready to hit eject. They told him the distraction—which he'd helped fuel—had become too much. They also hinted at concerns about his mental health, unsurprising given that Kitzhaber had no place to hide from a scandal that was haunting both his office and his home. Then, adding insult to injury, WW broke the news that night about the attempted email purging.
By Friday, February 13, Kitzhaber sent out his rueful announcement. He knew he was done. If he'd kept quiet, he might still be hanging on.
WHAT ABOUT KATE BROWN?
Brown, a longtime lawmaker before winning office as secretary of state in 2008, earns a pair of historical footnotes. She's the first person to take over for an Oregon governor who stepped down in shame. Brown, who's been out for years as bisexual, is also America's first sitting LGBT governor (a recent New Jersey governor came out the same day he resigned).
It's long been said Brown has pined for the state's top job—but she'll have it by right only until 2017. The state constitution demands a special election in 2016, with that winner filling the rest of Kitzhaber's term. That field could be crowded, and Brown's not a certain winner. She's seen as more liberal than Kitzhaber, but she's also recently been dinged for signing a net neutrality letter written by Comcast. Worse is that no one really knows what the secretary of state does outside of running elections.
The free-for-all in Salem was supposed to start a few years later, ahead of 2018. Instead, it's begun right now.