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Kitzhaber Announces His Resignation Amid Multiple Investigations

Alan Sylvestre
Oregon governor John Kitzhaber waves to supporters at Democratic party election night headquarters in Portland on November 4, 2014.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is resigning amidst multiple ongoing criminal investigations.

The Democrat took the oath of office for his fourth term in January. But months of simmering allegations of ethical lapses reached a crescendo this week that the governor just couldn't ignore.

Kitzhaber is an Oregon icon. He's known for wearing jeans and cowboy boots, even to his own inaugurations. He's the only person ever elected governor of the state four times, including by a fairly comfortable margin just last November.

But the veteran politician couldn't weather this political storm.

"I understand that I have become a liability to the very institutions and policies to which I have dedicated my career and indeed my entire adult life," he said Friday, in a statement announcing his resignation.

Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Oregon First Lady Cylvia Hayes, are accused of looking the other way while Hayes received money from interest groups that wanted to use her influence to advance their legislative agenda.

The Oregon Attorney General has launched a criminal investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice is also looking into the case. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed state records about Kitzhaber and Hayes Friday, including emails, employment records and tax returns.

In the state Capitol building Friday, lawmakers and lobbyists hardly knew how to react.

"You know, today's a sad day for Oregon," said Mike McLane, the leader of the Oregon House Republicans.

The GOP is in the minority in both legislative chambers in Salem, but McLane wasn't rejoicing over the downfall of a political adversary. He says he'd rather the governor had stuck around to face the music.

"We need that investigation completed to make sure all Oregonians know that their government is going to be transparent," he said.

The Oregon Department of Justice clarified Friday that its criminal investigation of the governor will continue even after he leaves office.

Democrats in Oregon were also taken aback by the downfall of their governor.

Senate President Peter Courtney has served alongside Kitzhaber for more than three decades. He says he just doesn't know how the governor's fall from grace will affect state government. 

"I never practiced this play. I never was on this team. I don't have any primer," Courtney said. "I don't have any way of how you do this, because I never thought I'd be here, because it's never happened this way before."

And he said he hopes Kitzhaber's legacy will be more than the circumstances under which he left office.

"He is a son. He is a brother. He is a father. He is a human being," Courtney said. "It is all these things for which I hope he is remembered."

The governor's resignation is effective Wednesday morning. That's when Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown will be sworn in as the state's second female and first LGBT governor. Brown is also a Democrat and long-time elected official. 

She briefly addressed reporters as cameras flashed outside her state Capitol office. But she didn't have much to say: "I know you all have a lot of questions, and I want to be able to answer them as soon as possible."

For his part, Kitzhaber has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In his resignation statement, the governor says he's only guilty in the court of public opinion.

"It is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved," the departing governor said.

Depending on the outcome of the ongoing criminal investigation, Kitzhaber may end up being tried in a real court. The kind that could put an even darker stain on his legacy.