Just when you thought the state of Oregon might be about to relegate the John Kitzhaber scandal into the dustbin of history, the Oregon Governmental Ethics Commission has decided to bare its teeth.

The commission, on a lopsided 7-1 vote, rejected a proposed settlement in which the former governor would have admitted that he broke ethics laws by using his position for personal gain. Kitzhaber would have paid a $1,000 fine.

It was widely anticipated that the commission would approve the settlement.

Instead, the commissioners balked, saying that $1,000 wasn't a big enough fine for the man who was the state's dominant political figure for more than a decade. Said Dan Mason, one of the commissioners: "A top official violating ethics laws should pay a top penalty." The top penalty in this case would be $20,000.

Although Friday's vote by the commission feels a little bit like kicking the guy once again while he's still down, a larger issue is at play here. The commission's action is a sign that it is no longer willing to be perceived as a body that rubber-stamps token penalties for violations.

In the settlement deal, Kitzhaber was to admit that he broke ethics laws on four occasions by failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest regarding his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. As you might recall, Kitzhaber named Hayes an adviser on energy policy issues to his administration even though Hayes was paid through her consulting firm, 3E Strategies, to advocate for green energy policies. According to a recent story in The Oregonian, Hayes earned more than $200,000 through the business while Kitzhaber was in office. In the settlement, Kitzhaber also was to admit that he had collected frequent flier miles when he traveled on state business.

After a two-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice said earlier this year that it would not file charges against Kitzhaber or Hayes. State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum previously had declined to press charges.

But the vote by the Ethics Commission keeps its own investigation open for at least two more months. "It will be interesting to see what they present to us," Commissioner Mason told The Oregonian. At that point, the commission could choose to broaden the probe or could consider steeper fines.

Meanwhile, the commission's investigation into Hayes continues.

It's been nearly three years now since Kitzhaber resigned, elevating Kate Brown to the state's top job. To some degree, the members of the Ethics Commission must have been tempted to bring this sorry chapter in Oregon political history to a close. 

Certainly, Kitzhaber thought that was how it was going to play out: Two days before the board's Friday meeting, he wrote on his Facebook page: "I am glad to say this episode in my life is finally over. After having been cleared of wrong doing by the federal investigation, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission has completed its review as well."

On Monday, he wrote: "Well, as many of you have pointed out, my last post appears to have been somewhat premature." 

Kitzhaber said he was surprised by the reaction of the commissioners, and added that he's not as worried about the level of the fine as he is in "clarifying how the Commission believes I may have violated Oregon ethics laws, having an opportunity to respond to the Commission’s allegations, and then assuming responsibility for any infractions I may have committed."

And, indeed, all of that would be good — and it has the potential to bring this matter to a more satisfying conclusion than a $1,000 fine could have supplied. But if the commission wants to reach that endpoint (and, in the process, leave a clear message for other Oregon public servants to heed), it will need to remember that it has a bite to go along with its bark. (mm)

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