November 10, 2015: This story has been corrected.
One day before Oregon’s usual Valentine’s Day statehood celebration this year, the Capitol was awash with reporters chasing a rare story on the abuse of access to power rather than the frosted sheet cake being handed out by the Oregon Wheat Growers League to mark the state’s 156th birthday.
In a state where ethical behavior is assumed rather than regulated, former Gov. John Kitzhaber offered his resignation in a pre-recorded speech heard in his reception room, while de facto-governor Kate Brown prepared for duty in the secretary of state’s office a floor below.
Kitzhaber was being investigated following media reports that his fiancé, a consultant, was selling access to the governor’s office and using state resources for personal gain, and that he blurred the line between his job as governor and his re-election campaign.
For many in the state, Kitzhaber’s resignation is a thing of the past. But the scandal that ensnared the former governor highlighted a wobbly legal framework in Oregon’s government, where good behavior is taken for granted rather than enforced.
That framework explains why Oregon fared poorly in this year’s State Integrity Investigation, earning an overall score of 59 – an F grade – and ranked 42nd among the 50 states in the data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
“It’s not like Chicago or something,” said Dan Lucas, a researcher, policy advocate and chief editor of the blog Oregon Catalyst. Noting four of the last seven Illinois governors went to jail, he said, “We don’t have that level of corruption.”
But Oregon’s relative lack of scandal may be a function more of good manners rather than of law. As Lucas and others note, and this year’s failing grade suggests, lines are easily blurred in Oregon government, and ethical lapses and partisan abuses of power – while often not criminal – have been smoothed over by both political maneuvering and etiquette.
Kitzhaber’s resignation caused Oregon to receive an F in the category of executive accountability. The debacle also ensnared the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, and highlighted why Oregon is one of the worst performing states with regard to access to information (F).
Oregon’s overall failing grade represented a substantial dip from the C- the state received from the last State Integrity Investigation scorecard in 2012, but the grades and scores are not directly comparable due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology—like eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.