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Capital Chatter: The rise, fall and fine of Kitzhaber

The tale of the former governor's ethics case could end with a $20,000 penalty.

  -  It comes down to this — a $20,000 fine for Gov. John Kitzhaber's alleged violations of state ethics laws.

After the federal and state investigations, and after his resignation three years ago that vaulted Kate Brown into the governor's office, is a $20,000 fine much ado about nothing?

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission on Friday will consider whether to accept its staff's negotiated settlement with Kitzhaber, who has agreed to it. Commissioners balked last fall when Kitzhaber was poised to pay only a $1,000 fine.

Kitzhaber could have been fined as much as $50,000. Still, $20,000 is not insignificant for Kitzhaber, who is not a wealthy man.

• Ironies abound, as do questions: Kitzhaber is a staunch Democrat, but a moderate. As his fourth gubernatorial term was coming to an abrupt end in early 2015, Republicans were his biggest backers. Dick Withnell — a Salem-area civic leader, businessman and philanthropist — attended last month's ethics commission hearing, listening quietly as Kitzhaber and his lawyers responded to the allegations.

Republicans had learned to work with Kitzhaber, and they viewed Brown as too liberal. They also felt Kitzhaber was being wrongly railroaded out of office.

It seems obvious that Kitzhaber allowed his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, to blur the lines between her roles as policy adviser/first lady to him and her work as a private consultant. (Hayes' case is still before the ethics commission.)

Hayes might have benefited financially, and thus Kitzhaber as well. That remains unclear. The dots connect but — to mix a metaphor — there's no smoking gun. Kitzhaber says he did not intend to violate ethics laws or to use his office for personal gain. The ethics commission seems prepared to agree, saying the violations occurred but were inadvertent.

• Questions that might never be answered: Was Kitzhaber unfairly hounded from office by the media and members of his own party? Or had he become a dysfunctional governor?

In retrospect, was his election to an unprecedented fourth gubernatorial term a mistake by Oregon voters? Kitzhaber was elected over conservative state Rep. Dennis Richardson. Two years later, Oregonians chose Richardson as secretary of state because Democrat Brad Avakian was deemed ultra-liberal.

Why did staff members go behind Kitzhaber's back to encourage his departure? Was their and others' "whistleblowing" legitimate or not?

Kitzhaber's resignation elevated Secretary of State Brown to replace him. What role did she play in forcing his departure?

Finally, are Oregon's ethics laws clear, consistent and contemporary? The ethics commission pursues a lot of penny-ante cases. Does it have the money, moxie and mandate to pursue deeper, potentially more-important matters?

• A theoretical question: Is the $20,000 fine appropriate in light of Kitzhaber's conflicts of interest? Or, now that the various investigations have ended with no criminal charges and with middling findings of ethics wrongdoing, should Oregonians be compensating Kitzhaber for what he endured?

• Conflicts of governance: Ethics is only part of the issue. Hayes' personality — what I see as her sense of entitlement — created conflicts of governance for the governor's staff. Continuous conflict equals dysfunction, regardless of whether the chief executive is running a business, a state or the nation.

Good leaders are not necessarily good managers, and vice versa. Presumably, voters choose elected officials based on their leadership qualities. But how do we ensure having excellent managers at every level of government? No one has solved that question.

• Ethics and the secretary of state: Oregon Deputy Secretary of State Leslie Cummings sought the ethics commission's advice as to whether Secretary of State Richardson's compensation could be increased to include a security officer/driver "to drive and accompany the Secretary to all state or personal meetings located outside his state offices."

One of the things I like best about Oregon government is the absence of pomp. Few elected officials have chauffeurs; most commute like the rest of us.

Oregon also has fewer elected officials than many states. For example, we have no lieutenant governor, despite occasional attempts to add one. There is no hierarchy as to which elected official is No. 2 to the governor, only that the secretary of state takes over in the event of a gubernatorial vacancy.

Thus, the secretary of state is in a similar position to that of other statewide elected officials, including the state treasurer, Tobias Read; attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum; and commissioner of Labor and Industries, Brad Avakian.

Maybe it is time to provide security officers for more elected officials. If so, give the job — and the budget authority — to the Oregon State Police. That would ensure continuity as well as consistent quality.

The OSP Dignitary Protection Unit provides around-the-clock protection of the governor. State police also provide security in the Oregon Capitol, including in the House and Senate when the Legislature is in session.

By the way, Salem Police and certain other local law enforcement agencies have part-time dignitary protection units, because of the many foreign and U.S. dignitaries who visit Salem.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughesisms.com/Facebook, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.