Kitzhaber broke the law, intentionally or not

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber insists he did not intend to enrich himself by playing fast and loose with state ethics rules concerning his fiancee's consulting business. That may well be true, and we have no reason to doubt Kitzhaber's word. But in the end, it shouldn't matter.

That was the assertion of members of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission on Feb. 16 when they voted unanimously to find Kitzhaber had committed 10 violations of state ethics laws. Specifically, the commission said Kitzhaber misused his office for personal gain by enabling Cylvia Hayes to pursue her career as a privately paid advocate for green energy and economic policies while she helped shape both as a member of the governor's administration.

In January, the commission issued a preliminary finding that Hayes violated state laws 22 times while earning more than $200,000 from her advocacy business. She could face up to $110,000 in fines, and could be required to forfeit some of the money she earned.

Kitzhaber appeared before the commission on Feb. 16 — Hayes never did so — and he acknowledged having made errors. He apologized, he said, to his family, his former chief of staff and to the people of Oregon.

But Oregon's longest-serving governor drew the line at the allegation that he used his office for personal gain, and declared that none of the ethical violations was done out of greed, and he never intentionally used his position to advance Hayes' career or to enrich himself.

Kitzhaber's attorney argued that state law barring a public official from using an office for personal gain requires intent. Ethics commission chair Alison Kean disagreed. She noted that Kitzhaber was well aware that Hayes was earning money from the same issues she was working on as an adviser to the governor. And he gave her access to his administration despite that knowledge.

Kitzhaber said he knew Hayes' career and her position as an adviser on the same policy areas presented ethical challenges, but he left it up to his staff to monitor that and didn't know the details of her private-sector work. That's not good enough, and the commissioners rightly told him so.

It was Kitzhaber's responsibility to make sure there were no ethical conflicts. His failure to do so, whether deliberate or not, violated the public trust.

Kitzhaber already has suffered the biggest punishment for that lapse by being forced from office at the beginning of what would have been his fourth term as governor. Now he faces up to $50,000 in fines if the commission decides on the maximum penalty.

He has the option of appealing the commission's findings in a formal hearing, and the matter could potentially reach the state Supreme Court. That would be unfortunate. It would be better for all concerned if Kitzhaber reaches a settlement and acknowledges violating the law. This matter has dragged on long enough.

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