© 2024 KLCC

136 W 8th Ave
Eugene OR 97401

Contact Us

FCC Applications
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Oregon governor’s staffers raised concerns about role of first lady before exits

Governor Tina Kotek waves to the crowd, along with her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, after being sworn into office at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Governor Tina Kotek waves to the crowd, along with her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, after being sworn into office at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2022.

A top aide to Gov. Tina Kotek voiced worries about Aimee Kotek Wilson’s role in the administration earlier this year, after Kotek asked a staffer to do a favor for one of the first lady’s friends, newly released public records show.

Abby Tibbs, a former special adviser to Kotek, wrote to one of the governor’s behavioral health staffers on Feb. 7 to address a recent interaction the aide had had with Kotek. In the email, Tibbs suggested Kotek had directed the aide to contact Cascadia Behavioral Health, where Kotek Wilson once worked.

“I realize I never followed-up with you in writing about the situation we discussed about the Governor asking you to call Cascadia about a friend of the [first lady’s] who is upset with her supervisor,” Tibbs wrote to the aide, Juliana Wallace.

She went on to write that “actions by the FL and/or Governor like the ones above are indeed highly inappropriate at best,” and said that Kotek and her wife had been “reminded several times now” about using the power of the governor appropriately.

The email is one example of top staffers raising red flags about Kotek Wilson’s involvement in the administration, and perhaps a telling one. Tibbs was one of three aides to depart the office last month, in a shakeup that has been tied by knowledgeable sources to the first lady’s growing role in the office.

Tibbs wasn’t alone in raising concerns. On March 18, Lindsey O’Brien, a former deputy chief of staff to Kotek, expressed concerns in an email to another senior aide, Chris Warner, that she hadn’t been kept in the loop about a decision to transfer a staffer from the Department of Administrative Services to support Kotek Wilson. That decision, the email suggested, had been made hastily.

“I’m concerned [governor’s office] staff are hearing about this for the first time from DAS with no context from us – we probably need to address it in tomorrow’s team meeting,” O’Brien wrote.

Four days later, OPB and other outlets reported she would be taking leave from the office.

The emails, released to media organizations in response to public records requests, bolster a narrative first reported by OPB in the wake of the departure of three of Kotek’s most-senior aides in late March.

Multiple sources with direct knowledge of the governor’s office have said that the first lady’s expanding authority generated concerns among staff. Kotek Wilson, who receives no paycheck, had attended meetings on behavioral health and other matters, and was given her own small office next to members of Kotek’s staff as her role grew. When the governor signaled she would move forward with hiring an aide to assist her wife in March, those concerns reached a breaking point.

The governor’s office revealed on March 22 that Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper, O’Brien and Tibbs would all be departing or going on leave.

Cooper appears to have been fired, then granted an eight-month role in another state agency where she will keep her $303,000 salary – a deal that current and former state employees have characterized as a stand-in for a severance agreement. Tibbs, meanwhile, returned to a former job at Oregon Health & Science University. O’Brien is on paid medical leave, though it is unclear whether she plans to return.

Collectively, the women represented three-fourths of Kotek’s most senior brain trust, and are widely credited as having central roles in bringing the governor’s vision to bear.

Kotek has characterized news stories reporting that the departures were tied to Kotek Wilson as “assumptions,” and has instead sought to portray the shakeup as run-of-the-mill turnover.

Emails included in a trove that stretches more than 6,000 pages give credence to the notion that the first lady’s expanding role was becoming an issue for staff.

On March 10, Tibbs wrote to other top aides in the office to note that “the Governor… has clearly made a decision to move forward on the [first lady] role in her own way/direction,” including by providing a chief of staff for Kotek Wilson. Tibbs had questions about how that new staffer would fit into the office.

“How are we ensuring that there is a written job description for this position and that the responsibilities are for a full time position, that there are clear and transparent expectations about how the position fits into the office structure?” she wrote.

Two days later, O’Brien chimed in on the matter, asking that the governor’s executive team be notified when a position description was created for Kotek Wilson’s new aide.

“I think there will be a lot of questions and concerns,” O’Brien wrote.

On March 15, Tibbs laid out those concerns clearly.

Responding to questions raised by Shelby Campos, the governor’s office administrator, about how Kotek Wilson’s aide would fit into the office, Tibbs referred to “the additional issues that [Andrea Cooper], Lindsey [O’Brien] and I have advocated be addressed over the last several months related to use of public resources and office budget implications with [first spouse] staff/travel etc.”

“I continue to believe that the office has an obligation to not only meet the letter of the law/ethics rules but exceed them and center the spirit of the laws/ethics rules because there are significant issues of public trust and the obligation to the people of Oregon,” Tibbs wrote. “To that end, the office should take meaningful steps to address the appearance/perception related to a Governor and spouse and staff re conflicts of interest, favoritism, bias, nepotism issues, complicated power dynamics, conflict resolution, retaliation — the things that can really impact [governor’s office] staff morale and sense of stability and the confidence in a [governor’s office] overall.”

Despite what appears to be clear signals of concern by her most-senior aides, Kotek pressed on. In late March, she hired a new employee whose role it is to support Kotek Wilson while the governor explores the idea of creating an Office of the First Spouse. Kotek also directedOregon State Police to provide bodyguards for her wife whenever Kotek Wilson is attending official events.

It’s not uncommonaround the country for first spouses to take on official roles, though the nature of their duties varies widely from state to state. But Kotek Wilson’s expanding influence is perhaps particularly fraught in Oregon, where former Gov. John Kitzhaber was forced to resign in 2015 after revelations that his fiancée profited off of the influence she held in the governor’s office.

Kotek’s office asked the Government Ethics Commission for guidance on creating an Office of the First Spouse on April 5 – weeks after announcing the staff departures that appear to have been prompted by the idea.

By then publicity on the matter had already spurred formal ethics complaints against Kotek. The details of those complaints are not yet public, but the ethics commission has said it can not answer Kotek’s questions about her spouse’s role until they are resolved.

In the meantime, Kotek has begunfilling the holesleft by the recent shakeup.

This story may be updated.
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake