Disgraced former Oregon governor, John Kitzhaber, is attempting a big comeback. In February 2015 he was forced to resign amid influence peddling allegations and a federal criminal probe investigating both Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. After going underground for a while, he recently started posting videos on his Facebook page questioning his decision to resign and making multiple public appearances expressing his opinions on the state of healthcare reform in Oregon. According to an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Kitzhaber has plans to use his 26 years of public service and four successful runs for governor to establish a lucrative consulting business.
However, just as Kitzhaber tries to re-enter public life he has been hit with a lawsuit dragging him right back to his past transgressions. His former communications director, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, claims her employment was terminated when she sought legal counsel after being instructed to work on Kitzhaber’s re-election campaign rather than state business. Harmon Johnson’s lawsuit also claims a state Justice Department investigator spied on her husband and performed a “threat assessment” on him as retaliation for her complaints against the governor.
Harmon Johnson’s lawsuit has named Kitzhaber, Hayes, his former chief of staff Mike Bonetto, and state Justice Department investigator James Williams. The lawsuit states that each week Kitzhaber’s campaign advisors held an in-person meeting with his executive staff. Additionally, the campaign advisors frequently corresponded with the Governor’s executive staff, senior policy advisors and senior employees at Cover Oregon via telephone conference calls, emails, and texts. Harmon Johnson witnessed what she reasonably believed were “myriad improprieties involving the Governor’s re-election campaign team and his official staff, including, but not limited to, directing or permitting of political activities by public employees while on the job in violation of ORS 260.432, as well as mismanagement and abuse of authority.” Harmon Johnson has also stated that she was directed by Bonetto and Kitzhaber to work with the campaign team and illegally tailor her official duties around the needs of the Governor’s campaign.
According to the lawsuit, Harmon Johnson was expected to manage communications, appearances, and events for Kitzhaber’s fiancee Cylvia Hayes. These duties not only included Hayes’ activities related to her capacity as the administration’s energy advisor but that of her personal interests and outside businesses. When Harmon Johnson first expressed her concerns that the lines were being inappropriately crossed she came under fire from Hayes at an executive staff meeting. Harmon Johnson believes this conflict with Hayes started a series of disparaging statements to other high ranking people, including the Kitzhaber and Bonetto, leading to the instigation of her termination.
The blurring of official lines is nothing new for this administration. Kitzhaber and Hayes are currently involved in an 18-month long investigation involving charges of influence peddling and conflict of interests. No charges have been filed yet but, claims have been made that Hayes used her positions as the administration’s energy advisor and fiancée of the Governor to unfairly influence state energy policies. During her time as energy advisor, Hayes was a paid as a consultant by multiple special interest groups looking to buy influence. She and Kitzhaber have been accused of illegally profiting from their government positions. In April 2015 current Oregon Governor, Kate Brown, released 94,000 emails between Hayes and Kitzhaber’s staff. Many of the emails showed how entrenched Hayes was in every aspect of the administration. In the emails, there were numerous examples of state employees taking direction from Hayes on matters of Kitzhaber’s policies.
The emails also showed the same types of conflicts Harmon Johnson alleged in her lawsuit. Executives of the state’s healthcare exchange, CoverOregon, worked with both Hayes and the Governor’s campaign team. The state exchange was another complete debacle for the Kitzhaber administration. The state of Oregon was given $305 million to establish a healthcare exchange. Rife with malfeasance and misappropriation of funds the decision to close down CoverOregon came before its one year anniversary. Some of the 94,000 emails document the administration’s decision that the healthcare program’s mismanagement could hurt the Governor’s fourth run for office, so it was ended to keep it from becoming a campaign issue. The $305 million taxpayer loan was just gone and no one, including Kitzhaber, had an explanation for it. The evidence clearly shows the ultimate decision to kill the state exchange was solely political. The failure of the exchange had become an anvil around his neck and he was sinking in the polls.
With the legacy, Kitzhaber and his cronies have left behind it is absurd to think that he should be given any legitimacy on the public stage. His time in public service should serve as nothing more than a cautionary tale of what can go horribly wrong when self-serving people are elected to positions of power and have millions of dollars to spend however they wish.