State Ethics Commission Deadlocks, Won’t Investigate Gov. Kotek

A deadlocked Oregon Government Ethics Commission won’t pursue an investigation into Gov. Tina Kotek’s since-abandoned plans to give her wife an expanded policy role in her administration.

Over the past few months, commission staff have investigated complaints alleging that Kotek broke state ethics laws by providing first lady Aimee Kotek Wilson with space in her office and assigning state police officers and other staff to assist Kotek Wilson. Kotek acknowledged in March, amid media scrutiny of several high-profile staff departures, that she was considering creating an “Office of the First Spouse,” though she nixed those plans in early May after nearly a month of pushback.

After a 60-day preliminary review, ethics commission executive director Susan Myers recommended dismissing the complaints against Kotek, saying there was no evidence that Kotek or her wife would financially benefit from Kotek Wilson working as an unpaid volunteer in the governor’s office.

After nearly an hour of debate, commissioners deadlocked in a 4-4 tie on whether to proceed with a more thorough investigation into Kotek. Commissioners who voted to investigate, including Commission Chair Shawn Lindsay, said they owed it to the people of Oregon to determine whether the governor did anything wrong.

“Moving to dismiss this would be premature and would be treating Governor Kotek differently than we have treated other respondents in very similar circumstances,” Lindsay said.

All nine commissioners are appointed by the governor – one selected directly by the governor and the eight others recommended by House and Senate party caucuses. The four commissioners recommended by legislative Republicans voted to further investigate Kotek, while three commissioners chosen by Democratic caucuses and the member appointed by former Democratic Gov. Kate Brown declined. One member was absent, leading to the 4-4 tie and an administrative dismissal.

‘A lot of smoke’

Commissioners who voted against investigating Kotek, including Multnomah County prosecutor Channa Newell, said they didn’t see evidence suggesting Kotek erred.

“It feels punitive if we continue, because there is no substantial objective basis at this point,” Newell said.

None of the commissioners said they saw proof that Kotek did anything wrong, but those who voted to investigate Kotek further said they wanted to provide Oregonians with more certainty.

“What I see is a lot of smoke,” said Commissioner Richard Burke. “I don’t see a fire, I don’t see a smoking gun, but I see some smoke here.”

Commissioner Jonathan Thompson agreed, saying Kotek’s status as governor meant she needed more scrutiny.

“We can’t get around the fact that we’re talking about the governor,” Thompson said. “It just is what it is. We’re not talking about the chair of the soil and water conservation district in Morrow County. We’re talking about the governor, and I do think we owe it to the citizens of Oregon to absolutely look at everything and make sure that we’re as thorough as possible.”

Top of mind of some commissioners and for many Oregonians were comparisons to former Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. Kitzhaber resigned shortly into his fourth term because of an influence-peddling scandal involving Hayes, and Hayes agreed to pay the ethics commission $44,000 in 2019 to settle charges that she violated state ethics laws by serving as an unpaid adviser to Kitzhaber on environmental issues while simultaneously seeking lucrative private consulting contracts with companies that wanted to influence state environmental policy.

“The state is watching us,” Burke said. “Everybody is watching us very carefully. And after the John Kitzhaber- Cylvia Hayes situation, I think it is very important that we be diligent in making sure that what is asserted in your report is actually correct.”

Review of news reports, emails

Derek Johnson, an attorney representing Kotek, said he appreciated concerns about what is “appropriate” for the governor’s office to do – but that those concerns aren’t in the commission’s purview.

“However, what is appropriate is different than what is legal or allowed under the ethics statutes,” he said. “Appropriateness falls under what we would consider a political concern, and political concerns are not the purview of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.”

In crafting her report, Myers said she reviewed news reports and emails the governor’s office released in response to public records requests from media outlets including the Capital Chronicle.

But she did not interview the three top staffers who left the office: special adviser Abby Tibbs, Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper and deputy chief of staff Lindsey O’Brien. That decision surprised several commissioners, including Commissioner Richard Burke.

“From those emails, it is clear that some of these staff members may have had concerns about the circumstances surrounding Ms. Kotek Wilson’s position,” Myers said. “These concerns, however, appear to be based more on political perceptions and staff members’ misunderstanding of the Oregon government ethics laws.”

Shenoa Payne, an attorney appointed to the commission by the House Democratic Caucus, said she disagreed that interviewing former Kotek staff would help. The allegations raised in their emails and in complaints filed by Oregonians based on news reports wouldn’t violate state ethics law, said Payne, who voted against investigating Kotek further.

“To me, interviewing those witnesses is not going to substantiate some sort of allegation that is going to change this landscape,” she said. “To me, the allegations are not such that it would change anything in the report we have before us.”

Kotek spokeswoman Elisabeth Shepard said Kotek was grateful for the commission’s deliberations and that Kotek now looks forward to receiving answers from the ethics commission to questions her office posed earlier this spring.

“The governor is grateful for the commission’s thorough deliberations on this matter,” Shepard said. “The first lady is a volunteer and public official with relevant professional experience that can provide tremendous value in furthering the Governor’s priorities.”

Kotek in May promised that she would not move forward with creating an Office of the First Spouse, regardless of the advice she receives from the ethics commission.

“As long as I am governor, there will not be an Office of the First Spouse,” Kotek said during a May 1 press conference.

by Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

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