SALEM, Ore. — Kate Brown was sworn in Feb. 18 as Oregon’s Governor following an influence-peddling scandal that prompted the resignation of fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, who had been the state’s longest-serving chief executive before his swift fall from grace.
Brown assumed Oregon’s highest office during a ceremony at the state Capitol. Brown, formerly the Secretary of State, becomes the first openly bisexual governor in the nation.
In a speech to the Legislature after her swearing-in, Brown praised Kitzhaber for his contributions but also said “we must restore the public’s trust.”
“There is a great deal of work ahead of us, and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to it,” she said in a brief address.
Meanwhile, Kitzhaber, in one of his final acts as Governor, commuted the prison sentence of a young inmate who’s serving a 12-year sentence for attempted murder and other charges.
The commutation document, obtained by The Associated Press, doesn’t reveal why Kitzhaber decided to release Sang Dao more than three years before his earliest possible release date.
However, last summer his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, who’s at the center of the ethics scandal that prompted Kitzhaber to step down, spoke at a youth correctional facility where the 25-year-old Dao received a college degree as part of a rehabilitation program, according to a report in the Woodburn Independent.
Hayes faces allegations that she used her relationship to enrich herself.
Kitzhaber, who didn’t attend the inauguration, has denied wrongdoing and has consistently maintained that he and Hayes worked hard to avoid conflicts between her public and private roles. He did not immediately respond to an email asking why he’d decided to commute Dao’s sentence.
Unlike most states, Oregon has no Lieutenant Governor. Under the state Constitution, the Secretary of State takes over if a Governor steps down or dies.
Brown, 54, was born in Spain, raised in Minnesota and came to Oregon to attend law school in Portland, the state’s largest city, and established a family law practice before her first run for the Legislature.
Kitzhaber handily won re-election in November to an unprecedented fourth term after surviving the botched roll-out of Oregon’s online health care exchange, which turned into a national embarrassment.
But the allegations surrounding Hayes’ work were more harmful, dominating headlines in the state following his victory.
A series of newspaper reports since October have chronicled Hayes’ work for organizations with an interest in Oregon public policy. At the same time she was paid by advocacy groups, she played an active role in Kitzhaber’s administration, a potential conflict of interest.
The spotlight on Hayes led to her revealing that she accepted about $5,000 to illegally marry a man seeking immigration benefits in the 1990s. Later, she acknowledged purchasing a remote property with the intent to grow marijuana.
Though questions about Hayes have swirled for months, the pressure on Kitzhaber intensified recently after newspapers raised questions about whether Hayes reported all her income on her tax returns. She has not publicly addressed the allegation and Kitzhaber has declined to.
Both state and federal officials have launched investigations.
Brown addressed the scandal at her swearing in, saying “Oregon has been in the national news for all the wrong reasons. That changes starting today.”
She called on lawmakers to pass “meaningful legislation” to strengthen the state ethics commission and require timely release of public records.
She pledged not to accept outside compensation while she’s governor and said the members of her household and her staff would not be allowed to seek compensation “for any work related to the business of the state of Oregon.”
“That simply will not happen,” she said.
After her speech, former Govs. Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski escorted Brown a short distance to her new office.
Brown’s term will last two years. The state Constitution calls for a special election that will come in November 2016. She hasn’t said whether she plans to run.
(JONATHAN J. COOPER)