Oregon Governor's Fiancee Admits to Green-Card Marriage
By Laura Gunderson
Less than 24 hours after news broke of a secret marriage, Oregon first lady Cylvia Hayes tearfully apologized to Oregonians and to her fiancé, Gov. John Kitzhaber, for accepting $5,000 to illegally marry an 18-year-old Ethiopian in need of a green card.
Hayes, now 47, said she was at a "difficult and unstable" period in her life 17 years ago when she made the decision to break federal laws.
"It was wrong then and it is wrong now, and I am here today to accept the consequences, some of which will be life changing," she said. "And I cannot predict what direction this will go."
That's true, too, for Kitzhaber, who seeks an unprecedented fourth term in a race against Rep. Dennis Richardson, a deeply conservative southern Oregon Republican who has consistently polled behind the incumbent.
Political pundits on Thursday doubted Hayes' marriage bombshell could blast Kitzhaber's chances, yet it was the second round of headlines swirling around the first lady. Earlier in the week, a Willamette Week story questioned whether she and her Bend-based consulting firm have benefited financially from her dual role as first lady.
The Richardson campaign took pot shots on its Facebook page Wednesday: "Apparently, contracts with the state of Oregon are for sale and payment can be made directly to the First Lady."
Hayes has been in a relationship with Kitzhaber for 10 years, and has said she was surprised on this summer's solstice when the 67-year-old got down on one knee on a sandy bank of the Rogue River to propose. She said Thursday that she was ashamed and embarrassed by her choices and that Kitzhaber learned about her third marriage Wednesday only after she was pressed by news reports.
"The fact that I did not disclose this to him meant that he has learned about this in the most public and unpleasant way," she said. "This is my greatest sorrow in this difficult situation."
Generally speaking, federal immigration officials can investigate so-called green-card marriages at any time. Yet local immigration attorney Philip Hornik said they're more inclined to launch an investigation when there are "fresh tracks" as opposed to stale ones.
The statute of limitation for criminal penalties is five years from the marriage date, meaning Hayes' deadline passed in 2002. There's no limitation on civil penalties, however. Hayes is likely safe from legal repercussions, yet immigration officials have the power to revoke a given status from immigrants who benefit from such deals.
"Of course in a campaign, saying that the criminal statute of limitations is up doesn't get you anywhere," said Jim Moore, a political science professor and director of Pacific University's Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation. "Still, I just don't see this having any impact."
He couldn't think of other examples of election-season implosions among first ladies but said the situation is comparable to that of a vice presidential scandal, ticking off examples including Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle.
"Other candidates and political nerds may say, 'Whoa,'" he said. "But the evidence of a vice president's impact on a national election is incredibly tiny."
Hayes said she was a struggling 29-year-old student when a mutual acquaintance proposed the deal to marry Abraham B. Abraham. He was an 18-year-old, she wrote, who had a shot at a college degree if he could gain residency. They met only a few times and never lived together.
"It was a marriage of convenience," Hayes said. "He needed help and I needed financial support."
She admitted in a late afternoon press conference on Thursday that she hadn't paid income taxes on the $5,000 payment, which ultimately paid for a laptop and covered some school expenses.
Hayes has traded on the story in the past, telling The Oregonian in 2011 that she arrived in Bend with "little more than two dogs, an aging Toyota and an unfinished master's thesis on her laptop."
"I became an active and engaged civic volunteer, community member and I became active politically," Hayes said of how her trajectory rose once she landed in Bend. She started 3E Strategies, a consulting firm focused on creating economies that balance environmental and social needs.
Washington court records show that Hayes filed for divorce from Abraham in a King County court on Oct. 26, 2001. Abraham turned 23 that month; Hayes was 34.
Hayes' court records show two previous divorces -- from Todd Hayes on March 28, 1989, and from Doug McCarthy on Dec. 17, 1996.
She said Thursday that she has not had any contact with Abraham since their divorce was finalized in February 2002. He went on to earn a mathematics degree from Greensboro College and now owns a nice home in suburban Washington, D.C. He did not respond to calls and emails for comment on Thursday. A reporter who went to the home Thursday night found it dark, and no one answered when he knocked.
Hayes met Kitzhaber around 2004 after she ran unsuccessfully against Republican Rep. Ben Westlund, R-Bend.
"My decision to marry illegally felt very, very distant and far removed," she said, "from the life I was building."
Hayes stood alone at the lectern Thursday, saying she'd asked Kitzhaber not to come. Though she had hoped a fourth term would be her chance to solidify her policy-making role, she said she instead plans to take time off "to reflect and address this difficult situation and to focus on my relationship with John."
As the nine-minute press conference came to a close and before she was asked a few final questions, she directed one last bit of contrition to Oregonians.
"I deeply regret not being right up front about the fact that I had made a serious mistake," she said. "I owe you all an apology."
Freelance reporter Matt Mossman contributed to this report.
(c)2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)