The U.S. Attorney for Oregon announced on Friday that former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancée Cylvia Hayes will not face criminal charges for alleged misuse of public office.
In a brief statement, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced it had been investigating Kitzhaber and Hayes for allegedly using their positions for personal benefit. The statement said the investigation has concluded and “no federal criminal charges will be sought.”
Friday’s announcement comes nearly two-and-a-half years after Kitzhaber resigned from office. It’s a major milestone in a saga that saw the downfall of one of Oregon’s most storied politicians.Nigel Jaquiss of Willamette Week.
The article revealed that Hayes was working an unpaid advisor in the governor’s office pushing the same policies that private advocacy groups were also paying her to champion.Kitzhaber was running for an unprecedented fourth term at the time. He won re-election in November 2014, but questions about influence peddling and Hayes continued to dog him.
Eventually the political pressure grew too great and in February 2015 Kitzhaber announced his resignation.
By that time both federal and state law enforcement officials were investigating if Kitzhaber or Hayes violated any public misconduct laws.
The Oregon Department of Justice quickly suspended its investigation at the request of the U.S. Attorney and the FBI. The federal agencies didn’t want to deal with a competing investigation but agreed to share information with state investigators.
The federal investigation ended up taking much longer than state officials originally anticipated. It took so long, in fact, that the Oregon Department of Justice was ultimately forced to abandon any hopes of completing its own investigation.
“The federal investigation has continued longer than initially expected and the state’s ability to pursue criminal charges will soon be foreclosed due to the statute of limitations,” Michael Slauson, the chief counsel of the Oregon DOJ criminal division, wrote this past February.
The federal investigation was slowed down partially because Kitzhaber successfully fought back against efforts by investigators to get a large cache of his emails that had been archived on state servers. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the federal grand jury subpoena for all of Kitzhaber’s emails was “unreasonable and invalid.”
Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who lost to Kitzhaber in the 2014 gubernatorial election, expressed disappointment in the decision.
"This decision does not change the fact that the Governor and Cylvia Hayes accepted money from those desiring to purchase influence," he said in a prepared statement.
Defense attorney Steven Ungar, who was not involved with this case, said he is not surprised the feds couldn’t put together a case against Kitzhaber.
Ungar said it’s difficult to prove this type of case when prosecutors don’t have a concrete example of the defendant receiving something tangible in return for political favor.
“There definitely was no evidence that I was aware of as a member of the public, evidence of quid pro quo,” Ungar said. “That weighed heavily in favor of his innocence.”
Ungar also said a Supreme Court decision in the case against the former governor of Virginia likely influenced the decision to not pursue charges against Kitzhaber and Hayes.
Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were both found guilty of bribery. They had been accused of taking more than $140,000 in cash and gifts in exchange for political favors. The Supreme Court overturned their conviction, saying prosecutors overreached in defining when a politician can face criminal charges.
“It sent a strong message to the federal prosecutors that these cases are going to be much harder to prove,” Ungar said.
Kitzhaber and Hayes still face a federal civil suit filed by Kitzhaber’s former communications director, Nkenge Harmon Johnson.
That suit claims that Harmon Johnson was fired as retaliation for speaking up with concerns about Kitzhaber inappropriately using state resources on his re-election campaign. It also claims that Hayes instigated the decision to fire Harmon Johnson by “making disparaging comments” to Kitzahber and his chief of staff.