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Portrait of Kitzhaber’s legacy

jorgensen

The official portrait of former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber continues to hang in the hall of the state capitol in Salem. It’s still there, alongside those of his predecessors like Ted Kulongoski and Vic Atiyeh, and right next to the office he occupied for longer than most of the people who have ever held it.

Kitzhaber’s portrait was particularly popular among tourists to the building in February 2015, in the days surrounding his resignation amid federal investigations and allegations of corruption and influence-peddling. Groups of people and individuals would pose for pictures with his portrait, taking selfies in the anticipation that the scandals and controversy would ultimately result in it being taken down.

Not much has been said publicly about the man in recent months, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation tends to be tight-lipped about its work. Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, occasionally break their silence with recorded video statements, social media posts and interviews in which they disclose very little while loudly proclaiming their innocence. Hayes even took a job with a startup magazine in Bend, an unusual career choice for someone with literally no background in journalism and who has blamed the news media and its members for her very public downfall.

The latest reminder that the trials and tribulations of John and Cylvia are nowhere near over hit this week like a one-two punch. First came the call from Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform for a criminal investigation into the disastrous $305 million Cover Oregon debacle, in which federal dollars were spent developing a website that never functioned or signed a single person in the state up for health insurance coverage.

Cover Oregon was supposed to be one of Kitzhaber’s crowning achievements and accomplishments, as he and others in the state’s political leadership were eager to have the state be the first in the nation to fully implement the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Instead, Oregon taxpayers get the privilege of paying for attorney fees years later as the state and software giant Oracle fight it out in multiple court cases and venues and point the finger at each other in an attempt to assign blame for the fantastic failure that followed.

The fact that the state didn’t have to build a website from scratch is often lost upon many during discussions on this issue. I had actually reported in December 2012 in an Estacada News article that former State Representative Patrick Sheehan grilled Cover Oregon officials about that decision during a committee meeting. Patrick, who has a background in website development, had received live product demonstrations from a company that could have licensed existing software to the state for $6 million and customized it for another $6 million. His concerns about the state wasting money were met with seeming derision by officials who were later fired or resigned in disgrace. They flippantly told Sheehan that they weren’t worried about wasting money, because if the state ran out, it could simply ask the federal government for more.

All of the constant calls for somebody, somewhere, to investigate what happened during Kitzhaber’s tenure as the state’s chief executive officer have grown into a chorus. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has, not surprisingly, never seemed to be very eager to investigate the man who appointed her to her position. But those of us who have been screaming for it all this time have become quite hoarse, in the hopes of eventually being heard.

At the end of that same news cycle came a story from The Oregonian newspaper that Hayes has been ordered by a judge to pay $128,000 in attorney fees to that publication after her failed attempts to keep her e-mails from being disclosed. That dollar figure is nearly the same amount that her consulting business supposedly made in a single year not all that long ago during her stint as First Lady. It’s also a full six figures higher than the amount she apparently disclosed to the Internal Revenue Service for that same year. As a former longtime reporter, I’m sure that it’s substantially more than she’s bringing home through her current occupation.

As these events unfolded, members of the Legislature convened at the capitol for a week of interim committee meetings. They include the Department of Energy Oversight Committee, which was formed in the hopes of figuring out what happened with that agency’s Business Energy Tax Credit boondoggle during Kitzhaber’s administration. Several state agencies have faced turnover at the director level in recent months and colossal budgetary shortfalls loom on the horizon for the Oregon Health Authority, Department of Human Services, Oregon Department of Transportation and the Public Employees Retirement System.

That’s a stark contrast to the legacy that I’m sure Kitzhaber was hoping to leave behind. In the meantime, though, his official portrait remains in its current location, much in the same way that former governor Neil Goldschmidt’s did until its removal.

I suppose the possibility exists that Kitzhaber’s may still someday be taken down. And maybe it will be placed alongside Goldschmidt’s so the two of them can hang together. Such a scenario might be the most fitting end for it once this whole situation has finally been resolved.

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