Full disclosure:

  1. I know and admire Cylvia Hayes.
  2. I support the initiatives that she actively promoted.
  3. I have no special knowledge of her financial dealings.

Regardless, I believe the recent attacks on Hayes and her fiancé, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), have been sensationalized, and are at best misleading. They feel like more of a witch hunt than honest muckraking. Indeed, there was little real muck to rake. A close look at the public record and the media stories attacking the couple reveals a pattern of innuendo, conflicting accusations, and shameless scandal mongering. But before we get to that, let’s go over some background.

The basics

On Feb. 13, 2015, Kitzhaber announced his resignation as governor, after relentless media attacks, particularly from Portland’s leading paper, The Oregonian, claiming that Hayes had violated state ethics rules and evaded taxes and that the governor had abetted her in some of these activities. An emotional Kitzhaber delivered a resignation speech questioning the roles of both the media and his own Democratic Party in forcing him out of office:

[I]t 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 with no independent verification of the allegations involved. But even more troubling — and on a very personal level as someone who has given 35 years of public service to Oregon — is that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value.

Kitzhaber had just begun his fourth term as Oregon’s governor (there was a hiatus of eight years between his second and third terms). He won reelection in November even as some of the allegations regarding his fiancée were already swirling about in the media. Kitzhaber was a popular governor because he got things done. A former physician and state senator from the conservative rural community of Roseburg, he was a moderate Democrat, criticized by the left for what it considered his too-cozy relationship with the state’s powerful timber industry. Nonetheless, he was liberal on social and most economic issues and strongly committed to a clean, green energy future for the state.

Indeed, it was Kitzhaber and Hayes’ mutual interest in climate change and clean energy that drew them together in the first place. They began dating in 2003, after Hayes lost a race for state representative in a district outside of Bend, Ore. She did influence him in one obvious way — encouraging Kitzhaber to walk his talk by driving a Prius instead of a gas-guzzling SUV.

In an October 2014 story in The Oregonian, Anna Griffin got the basic facts right as she traced Hayes’ path from a poor childhood in an alcoholic household to her involvement with Kitzhaber, who was out of office when the two first began a relationship. Hayes, who’s now 47, left home at 16, married at 19, divorced at 21, and had another failed marriage before agreeing to marry an Ethiopian immigrant to enable him to get a green card, for which Hayes was paid $5,000. With another boyfriend, she purchased some farmland in rural Washington with the idea of starting a marijuana farm (well before it was legal), a project that never got off the ground. She was not prosecuted, and the two bad judgments remained hidden from her public life story until both were exposed by the media in the fall of 2014.

Hayes voluntarily left behind the people that she had been associating with during that time and started building a new life. She worked hard at various jobs and completed studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., as a first-generation college graduate, then went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental studies and sustainability. She moved to central Oregon, got deeply involved in environmental and energy issues — her passion — and formed a nonprofit called 3E Strategies that she later turned into a private consulting business. According to Griffin, neighbors and friends in Bend described Hayes as a “straight shooter who stands up for her beliefs.” She lived simply and her passion for the environment outweighed her material considerations. “It’s what she lives and breathes,” one neighbor told Griffin.

In 2006, Hayes was named to then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s (D) Renewable Energy Working Group. Griffin allows that Hayes was appointed because of her expertise and “geography,” not political connections: “There weren’t many environmentally active Democrats in Central Oregon willing to make regular trips to Salem to talk energy policy.” Later, Hayes’ company received a contract with the Oregon Department of Energy for consulting work. While critics claimed that the money was granted to her based on her relationship with Kitzhaber, then running for his third term as governor, “Hayes and her company were cleared of any wrongdoing after a state Department of Justice investigation,” as The Oregonian itself reported. In fact, Mark Long, an Energy Department employee accused of favoring Hayes and steering money to her, ended up winning a $1 million settlement from the state in the wake of those false accusations.

When Kitzhaber became governor again in 2011, Hayes stepped into the first lady role. There is little question that she wore that mantle while promoting several political causes: clean energy and climate change; an anti-poverty campaign; and a new measure of economic performance called the Genuine Progress Indicator. In each case, they were causes the governor also believed in.

The claims

Multiple claims of corruption have been made against Hayes by Oregon media, particularly The Oregonian, the state’s biggest newspaper, and a Portland alt weekly, Willamette Week.

They started with charges that Hayes used state workers, including Mary Rowinski, her personal assistant as first lady, to take care of her pets, run personal errands, and arrange some travel for her energy consulting work. While these may technically be violations of stringent state ethics laws, they seem quite minor. Rowinski and Hayes were friends, and Rowinski had a role in Hayes’ decision to adopt two cats from the Humane Society, so she offered to help take care of them when Hayes was traveling.

The most significant claims of wrongdoing have to do with a two-year (2011-2012), $118,000 fellowship she received from the Clean Economy Development Center (CEDC), a green energy nonprofit. The money went to Hayes’ 3E Strategies business. The Oregonian reported:

It was that payment that led to questions about whether Hayes failed to report income on her federal taxes. In 2012, the year Hayes said she received $88,000 from the fellowship, she listed only $27,000 in business income … The income may have been reported on her company’s tax returns.

Since the money was actually paid to her company, that seems a real possibility.

Critics also charged that the fellowship bought political influence for CEDC. But its director, Jeffrey King, maintains that none of the money had been used to shape Oregon policy and that he never met with or tried to influence Kitzhaber. According to King, Hayes’ work for the center was paid for by two foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Energy Foundation, and was for “communicating the economic benefits of clean energy” through writing and speaking. “CEDC does not engage in any lobbying activities,” King emphasized.

Critics seemed to want things two ways regarding Hayes’ CEDC fellowship. On the one hand, they suggested the money was a gift with no real work attached, intended to influence the governor. But on the other hand, they were accusing Hayes of too much activity promoting clean energy. Indeed, Hayes performed significant work for CEDC, but much of it was outside the state of Oregon, and it had ended prior to clean energy legislation being proposed by Kitzhaber.

Criticism in the media of Hayes’ work for CEDC prompted the governor to announce that she would have no further policy role in his administration. Beginning in January 2014, Hayes also no longer accepted outside paid work and, in her role as first lady, acted solely as a volunteer in promoting her poverty and environmental causes.

If Hayes is corrupt, one friend of hers told me, then she was “selling herself far too cheaply.” High estimates are that Hayes earned a bit more than $200,000 in total over the last four years as she served as first lady, a decent salary but hardly an extravagant one. Given business and other expenses, her actual earnings may have been far less than that.

In addition to outright claims of corruption, there’s been an undercurrent of misogynistic criticism of Hayes, subtly implied by outlets like The Oregonian and stated outright by its online commenters and by right-wing blogs. She’s been disparaged as a gold digger, a trophy girlfriend, a bimbo, and a conniving, manipulative opportunist. In truth, Hayes is a passionate, effective advocate for her issues and a gifted, charismatic communicator. I’ve seen her speak amidst a host of other well-known experts, and her combination of great storytelling and use of factual data stole the show, in my opinion. Hayes wanted to have a career and an impact beyond that of first lady. She’s an outspoken environmentalist and activist, not a modest, retiring woman content to stand silently behind her man — and certain people in Oregon just couldn’t stand that.

The Genuine Progress Indicator

Much of the criticism of Hayes and Kitzhaber involved her nationwide efforts to promote a new measurement of economic success called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). My first conversation with Hayes, in 2011, included a discussion of GPI, a project dear to her heart and to Kitzhaber, who says he has been aware of the problems with using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to assess economic success since he first heard Sen. Robert Kennedy discuss the subject in 1968. Kennedy claimed that GDP (then known as Gross National Product) “measures, in short, everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” GDP is a notoriously blunt instrument for assessing quality of life. It counts all monetary expenditures, including the costs of cleaning up oil spills, treating cancer, etc., as positive while ignoring welfare-enhancing activities such as housework and volunteering, because they are unpaid activities.

The idea of GPI was first described in a 1995 Atlantic Monthly article. The authors called for starting with GDP but then subtracting the cost of defensive expenditures like environmental cleanups, loss of resources, and cancer treatments, while adding the value of housework and other useful unpaid activities. It took awhile, but the idea of GPI finally started gaining traction in the last few years; Maryland adopted it as one tool for measuring progress in 2010, as did Vermont in 2012.

Hayes was an advocate of GPI for Oregon, and in 2012 was awarded a $25,000 grant from Demos, a New York nonprofit, to promote the idea. She and Kitzhaber ran the contract by the governor’s legal counsel and it was revised to remove specific references to GPI work in Oregon. Hayes became an effective national spokeswoman for the concept, and helped organize a conference in Maryland promoting the idea, at which she and then-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) were the main speakers.

In April 2013, Hayes and Kitzhaber traveled to Bhutan for an international meeting on alternative measures of progress, and to learn about the policy tools adopted by the small Himalayan nation whose former king famously declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” (Full disclosure: I was an advisor to Bhutan’s U.N. happiness initiative in early 2013 and one of the people who encouraged Hayes to travel there.)

Later that year, Kitzhaber proposed a GPI project for Oregon. The Oregonian insinuated that Kitzhaber was improperly influenced by Hayes in doing so, despite the fact that he had been interested in alternative measures of progress long before he met her.

The Genuine Progress Indicator offers the clearest example [italics added] of how Hayes pushed a policy, with Kitzhaber’s participation, from both her public and private roles. …

[Before Kitzhaber’s GPI proposal] came the first couple’s infamous [italics added] trip to Bhutan for a global GPI gathering. Kitzhaber drew scorn from Republicans who wondered whether the governor was pursuing serious policy or generating fodder for a “Portlandia” script.

The April 2013 meeting was … organized by a coalition of organizations and governments pushing for worldwide use of the measure. Germany, a coalition leader, paid for Kitzhaber and Hayes’ travel and lodging. …

Kitzhaber [soon afterward] chose the GPI from a menu of alternative measures. It’s the one measure Hayes was paid to promote. It’s the measure that helped her become a fixture at speaking engagements nationwide.

What makes a trip to Bhutan — paid for by the Germans, not Oregon taxpayers — “infamous”? It was an educational trip, not a junket to a tropical beach at taxpayer expense. The only thing infamous about the trip was the scorn heaped on it by the Republicans and The Oregonian. But why let the facts get in the way of a good Portlandia joke?

The Oregonian is also wrong in saying that GPI is the “one measure Hayes was paid to promote.” In fact, her contract with Demos refers to work on GPI “and other alternative measures.”

And there’s no indication that Kitzhaber chose GPI over other alternative measures because of Hayes’ lobbying. Rather, GPI is the most popular alternative measure around, currently being considered by a host of states, including deeply red ones like Utah.

So The Oregonian‘s “clearest example” of Hayes’ manipulation of Kitzhaber fails completely to stand up under scrutiny.

Certainly, Hayes made errors of judgment along the way and did not take sufficient steps to put an obvious firewall between her private livelihood and her position as Oregon’s first lady.

But in all of this, a sensation-seeking media, which hounded a governor out of office without proof of ethical misconduct, has much to answer for.

The media bias

Much of the initial probing into Hayes’ background came from Willamette Week, a small competitor of The Oregonian, and was reported by Nigel Jaquiss, a former Goldman Sachs oil trader turned investigative journalist. In addition to reporting on Hayes’ marriages and pot farm plan, Jaquiss turned up some apparently troubling emails that suggest Hayes was jockeying to be a bigger player in state policy with the aim of eventually finding high-paying work as an environmental champion. But viewed another way, those emails simply show that she was trying to figure out how she could start earning income again in 2019, after forgoing paid work during another four years as first lady.

The most effective assault on Hayes and Kitzhaber came from the much larger and more influential Oregonian, which, despite having reluctantly endorsed Kitzhaber for reelection in 2014, was the first to call for his resignation on Feb. 4. Throughout January and the first half of February, The Oregonian produced a steady drumbeat of accusations against the governor and his fiancée.

It’s obvious that The Oregonian was not enamored of Kitzhaber’s policies. Its publisher, N. Christian Anderson III, and editorial page editor, Erik Lukens, are outspoken libertarians. Lukens came to the paper after a notorious tenure as the editorial page editor of the conservative Bend Bulletin, where he earned a reputation as a “Drill Baby Drill” advocate of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in Oregon coastal waters, and an implacable foe of strong environmental regulations.

In December 2014, Anderson, Lukens, and the rest of the editorial board announced that The Oregonian would not cover climate change on its editorial page, and, in that same piece, criticized Kitzhaber for his efforts to be a climate leader and his opposition to a proposed coal export terminal.

Less than a month later, the paper ran an op-ed by a well-known climate change denier, Gordon Fulks, who took cheap shots at Hayes, criticized Kitzhaber’s climate policies, and warned, “Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is a psychosomatic illness.”

Clicks for cash

Equally troubling is the newspaper’s dependence on sensationalism.

In March 2014, Willamette Week revealed a new Oregonian policy that assesses reporters’ job performance based primarily on how many online stories they post and how much traffic those stories generate. Recently deceased New York Times media columnist David Carr singled out The Oregonian for a journalistic dart because of this policy: “In the more-with-less annals of corporate mandates, this one is a doozy,” he wrote.

The Oregonian knows, as one friend of Hayes put it, “that Cylvia is the biggest click bait in the state.” Any story suggesting new revelations about Hayes or Kitzhaber was guaranteed a hefty readership, leading to the point of absurdity.

Consider a Feb. 17 Oregonian piece by Laura Gunderson, perhaps the most prolific reporter gunning for Hayes and Kitzhaber. She reported semi-breathlessly on a “folded note” the governor sent to the Senate president, which she described as “part of the dramatic narrative leading up to John Kitzhaber’s resignation the next day” and a “peek into the emotional final days of Kitzhaber’s short term.” After all that build-up, here’s what the note actually said:

Peter, thanks for your candor.
I will meet with Kate [Brown, who succeeded Kitzhaber] this afternoon to put the process into motion. Best wishes and good luck.
John

If the note were any calmer, it would be catatonic. Gunderson’s article is obviously nothing but click bait.

With a constant barrage of hyped-up stories, big and small, The Oregonian ultimately did the governor in. The process was helped along when other state Democratic Party leaders threw him under the bus by urging his resignation, probably assuming that drawn-out investigations into the accusations against him and Hayes would jeopardize Democratic election chances in 2016. This is precisely the lack of courage that so frustrates many progressives within the Democratic Party. The GOP would not have capitulated nearly so easily. Exhibit A: Chris Christie.

Much ado about very little

Michael Davis, executive editor of the Salem Statesman Journal, was aghast at the way the governor was hounded out of office. In a commentary piece published two days after Kitzhaber stepped down, Davis attacked The Oregonian’s “power-mad editorial suggestion on Feb. 4 that the duly elected governor of Oregon accede to their demand and resign.” He continued:

At the time, Kitzhaber, a popular and trusted public servant who has moved this state forward in innumerable ways, had not been charged with any crime or found by anyone in authority to have crossed any ethical breach.

Nothing about that has changed, yet, after a complete cave-in by the governor’s supporters and a media frenzy of O.J. proportions, John Kitzhaber is out of the job he was elected to fulfill. …

The Oregonian editorial board took a page out of the Karl Rove/Roger Ailes playbook — Obama may have been born in Kenya — by promoting an assumption as if it were fact, hoping others would pick up the drumbeat.

Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.

John Kitzhaber did not deserve to be railroaded out of office by a quintet of editorialists who clearly were out to get him.

The media reports by The Oregonian and others triggered government investigations on the state and federal level, but those investigations haven’t uncovered anything yet. As one of The Oregonian’s own reporters noted soon after the governor resigned, “So far, no one has alleged that Kitzhaber or Hayes has engaged in the scale of public corruption evident in other federal prosecutions.”

And there’s at least the appearance of a conflict of interest behind one of the investigations. As Priscilla Southwell, chair of the University of Oregon Department of Political Science, pointed out in a blog post, “the current Attorney General, who recently launched the investigation of Kitzhaber and his fiancée, is married to the publisher and co-owner of the Willamette Week, the newspaper that ‘broke’ many of the stories about his fiancée.”

Ultimately, as The New York Times reported on Feb. 15, “Some in Oregon believe the whole thing may be much ado about little.”

But that “little” led to the downfall of a governor and the shredding of his and his fiancée’s reputations.

The fallout

The GOP has sought to use the resignation to defeat environmental legislation, as The New York Times reported last week:

Oregon Republicans who oppose Mr. Kitzhaber’s environmental and energy policies have seized the moment. Citing possible improper influence by Ms. Hayes on energy legislation, they are seeking a delay in action on a bill — opposed by some business interests — that would extend an expiring low-carbon fuel standards law.

But to Republicans’ chagrin, the Democratic-controlled state Senate passed the bill last week, and the Democratic-controlled House might soon follow suit. The new governor, Kate Brown, is a liberal Democrat and a supporter of environmental protection, so though she hasn’t said yet stated an official position on the bill, it’s a good guess that if it makes it to her desk, she’ll sign it.

The national Republican Party has also tried to seize the moment. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a favorite of the oil industry, charged that Kitzhaber and Hayes were part of a “well-funded, highly developed far-left environmental network in place to influence environmental public policy.”

There clearly are gray areas in political ethics laws. Hayes may have crossed a line, but Kitzhaber probably didn’t. At most, he was guilty of letting his fiancée get too close to policy decisions about matters on which they were already in agreement. For this, he paid with his job.

I don’t have the evidence to defend Cylvia Hayes from all charges, but knowing her, I am convinced that her prime motivations have been the causes of environmental sustainability and economic justice — causes that benefit society at large. For now, at least, those causes have lost an eloquent advocate. She should have handled some things differently, yet whatever her mistakes, they offer no excuse for sidelining or undermining her issues.

Meanwhile, a slew of governors around the country are stripping benefits like food stamps from the poor, denying health care to their citizens, busting unions, disenfranchising minority voters, undermining environmental regulations, and handing out favors to corporations and tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires — and they seem to have no reason at all to fear for their political careers.

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John de Graaf is a filmmaker, author, president of Take Back Your Time, and a board member of Earth Island Institute.