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Ethics panel finds Kitzhaber guilty of 10 violations

February 16, 2018

FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2014, file photo, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber talks to reporters before a debate in Portland, Ore. The Oregon State Ethics Commission vote unanimously in finding former Gov. Kitzhaber guilty of several ethics violations. The preliminary finding on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, means that Kitzhaber can appeal. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber violated state laws against conflict of interest, misused his office for financial gain and improperly received a gift, the state’s ethics commission ruled unanimously on Friday.

The scandal, which triggered investigations in both federal and state levels, ended Kitzhaber’s long political career. The Democrat resigned in 2015 just over a month into his fourth term as governor amid accusations of influence peddling involving his fiancee Cylvia Hayes.

In January, the commission found that Hayes violated a state ethics law against public officials misusing their public positions for personal financial gain.

Unlike Hayes, Kitzhaber appeared before the commission for his case. The hearing was held in a cramped room in an office building in Salem. The commissioners sat at an oval table with Kitzhaber and his attorneys at one end and commission chairwoman Alison Kean on the other. Reporters, sitting in chairs at one end of the room, created a background of clicking sounds as they briskly typed on their laptops.

Kitzhaber, wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a blue blazer, acknowledged not properly managing potential conflicts of interest involving Hayes, who had an environmental consulting firm. But he denied that he sought to use his office for financial gain.

Kean later indicated that she believed the accusations as stipulated in a 215-page report released Wednesday.

“It’s not enough to have plausible deniability,” Kean said before asking the commission to vote.

All the commissioners found that Kitzhaber violated a statute against not declaring potential conflicts of interest seven times, violated a law against a public official using an office for financial gain on two occasions, and in one instance of improperly accepted a gift — frequent flyer miles from United Airlines. Another accusation, that a state employee was used to care for Hayes’ dog, was dropped.

Kitzhaber has 21 days after being formally notified of the vote to say whether he will contest the finding to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, said Ronald Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. If Kitzhaber does, an administrative law judge would hear the case.

The case could go all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court and potentially beyond, Bersin told reporters.

The maximum fine for each violation is $5,000, meaning the commission could fine Kitzhaber up to a total of $50,000 though cases are often negotiated for reduced settlements, Bersin said. Conflicts of interest cases are routinely heard by the commission but it was highly unusual to have such a former high office holder face action by the commission, which hears cases involving officials of all levels of government, from city councils to state employees.

“I don’t think it’s rare that this happened. I think the rarity is that it’s a former governor,” Bersin told a reporter.

A former emergency room doctor, Kitzhaber was the longest-serving governor in Oregon’s history. He also had served in the Oregon House and the Oregon State Senate, where he was Senate president.

In June 2017, federal prosecutors announced that no criminal charges would be filed against Kitzhaber or Hayes over allegations she used their relationship to win contracts for her consulting business. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum previously announced the state would not bring charges.

Kitzhaber has admitted allegations he failed to publicly declare a potential conflict of interest between his elected position and Hayes’ work as a clean energy consultant.

The ethics commission recently rejected a proposal that he be fined $1,000, with some members believing it was too low.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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