Sometime around the middle of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Friday press conference on Cylvia Hayes’ mounting troubles, Oregon achieved what might be the most ironic explanation in the history of political scandal.
The governor explained that Hayes was not available to answer questions about potential conflict of interest in her roles as private consultant and governor’s policy advisor, ab
out income that did not appear on her required public disclosure forms, and about six figures of income that may not have appeared on her federal tax returns, because she was attending an international conference on happiness.
That better be quite a conference.
At Kitzhaber’s questioning, happiness was as scarce as clarity.
During his last term, the governor explained, Hayes operated in “a gray area,” working out of his office yet taking private clients, filling what he called “this undefined role as first lady.” Yes, some of the issues that she was paid to advance overlapped with issues that concerned him as governor, but Kitzhaber insisted he and Hayes carefully tried to draw lines.
Meanwhile, uncertainty abounded. The governor said he wasn’t sure that the first lady was part of his legal household, although it seems they do have the same legal counsel – which is not, he said firmly, criminal counsel.
During the closing days of his campaign for re-election last fall, Kitzhaber dealt with the emerging issue of Hayes’ private consulting by saying that in his next term she would have no private business. Friday, he said that in this term she would have no public role.
If both these pledges hold – unless one cancels the other – Hayes could have a long and boring four years.
Right now, of course, boredom is the least of her problems. The news last week, from EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group, of an unannounced $118,000 in payments from the Clean Economy Development Center in Washington, D.C., appeared to raise the stakes dramatically. The money was not mentioned on her federal tax returns released to the public.
This raises the possibility of problems for Hayes far beyond the capacity of the Oregon Ethics Commission, the focus up to now. The Internal Revenue Service has very little sense of humor about large amounts of unreported income, and the power to involve people with black robes and gavels.
An alternative explanation might be different tax returns going to the IRS and the public, a development that would carry its own complications.
To a question about it, Kitzhaber said, “Clearly those are very serious allegations and apply specifically to her tax returns,” adding, “I have nothing to say on the issue of Cylvia’s taxes.”
Although Kitzhaber and Hayes have the same lawyers, maybe they don’t have the same accountant.
Five minutes into the press conference, Kitzhaber was asked if he was considering resigning – never a good question to be asked, even if your answer is no. He was also asked if there was any difference between him and former Virginia Gov. Jim McDonnell, who with his own first lady was recently convicted on multiple counts of corruption and sentenced to two years.
That question was considerably easier to answer. McDonnell received a Rolex, a Cape Cod vacation, catering at his daughter’s wedding, golf trips and $2,500 in Louis XIII cognac, and in exchange he hosted events for the businessman involved at the governor’s mansion and sent helpful notes to state officials. There’s no sign of Kitzhaber doing any of that.
And at last Friday’s press conference, there was no sign of Kitzhaber ever having that good a time.
But if the press conference was all about uncertainty and questions – and gray areas – it provided few signposts to answers, or realization that Oregon still deserved some.
By the end, Kitzhaber was saying that only Hayes could answer the questions he was getting, but refused to say that she would.
She was, after all, “an independent woman. She doesn’t work for the state of Oregon. If Cylvia Hayes wants to talk to the press, she’ll get in touch with you.”
In a press conference that provided few answers, this rare answer was wrong.
Even if Hayes wasn’t on the state payroll, she was working out of the governor’s office and using the title of first lady. As Hayes herself showed in her tearful October press conference about her sham marriage, someone in her position needs to show up and explain things in public.
We’re a long way from decisions based on what anybody wants.
About as far as we are from happiness.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 2/4/15.