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How the role of Oregon’s first lady unfolded in emails among Kotek’s staff

FILE: Surrounded by security, Aimee Kotek Wilson, left, and her wife, Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, prepare to enter the inaugural proceedings at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2023.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
FILE: Surrounded by security, Aimee Kotek Wilson, left, and her wife, Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, prepare to enter the inaugural proceedings at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2023.

Ever since three senior members of Gov. Tina Kotek’s staff announced theirdepartures in late March, a clear narrative had emerged from those familiar with the governor’s office. It suggested that staff had grown increasingly concerned with First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson’s expanded role in the administration.

Kotek and her spokespeople have consistently declined to answer detailed questions about the departures, but a trove of emails released Fridayin response to public records requests makes clear Kotek Wilson was a central reason for the shakeup.

Since Kotek took office in January 2023, public schedules show Wilson has held regular policy meetings on behavioral health issues and met with a broad range of state and local officials concerned with those matters. She also dabbled in other areas — confusing at least one high ranking public official who wasn’t expecting her at a meeting with the governor.

What surfaces in more that 6,000 pages of emails and documents released last week is a staff grappling with the implications of the larger responsibility Kotek Wilson was seeking. Beyond a small office space alongside other staff, she’d won approval from Kotek to have her own chief of staff, and began receiving regular protection from Oregon State Police.

All of those things raised questions and concerns among staff — and eventually led to the departure of three of Kotek’s top aides: Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper, Deputy Chief of Staff Lindsey O’Brien and special advisor Abby Tibbs.

Here’s a timeline of some of the more notable exchanges revealed in the newly released emails.

Jan 17, 2024

Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper questions the use of the Oregon State Police Dignitary Protection Unit to transport Kotek Wilson to an event in Eugene, writing to OSP Sgt. Michael Bates: “Was there a security reason for y’all to drive her?”

The same day, Kotek sends an email to staff that is somewhat typical of her discussing the first lady. “I’ve been catching up on my reading of reports, thinking about our behavioral health work for the year, and strategizing with the First Lady,” she writes. In later emails she will make clear that Kotek Wilson has meaningful input in her official calendar as well, writing in a Feb. 13 email about her schedule, for instance, “the [first lady] and I are still discussing how we want the year to go.”

Jan. 25, 2024

Cooper sends a note to Deputy Chief of Staff Lindsey O’Brien, after being alerted to public appearances by Kotek Wilson in which the first lady is requesting the possible presence of communications staff, an OSP bodyguard, and Vince Porter, a policy advisor. Cooper suggests she was barred from weighing in on how the office should approach those events.

“Since I was asked not to attend the scheduling meeting where these events were added to the [first lady’s] calendar, I didn’t have the opportunity to weigh in on the staffing or speaking portions that will now impact comms staff,” Cooper writes. “Perhaps you and I can try to brainstorm next steps to help support the comms team with workload, etc?”

Jan. 30, 2024:

O’Brien gets a call from the office of Christina Stephenson, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries. The office wants to know why Kotek Wilson has suddenly been listed as attending an upcoming meeting between Kotek and Stephenson.

“I just got a call from Commissioner Stephenson’s chief of staff about her meeting with the Governor tomorrow,” O’Brien writes to Kotek Wilson’s assistant. “She noticed the First Lady had been added to the calendar and asked me if that was correct and if we wanted to shift the agenda at all. This was a rescheduled meeting from a few weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard anything about this change…”

Kotek Wilson’s assistant, Yasmin Solario, replies that “this was one First Lady and Governor had a side convo during scheduling about her joining for lunch. I think it may be one she decides on last minute…”

The same day, Cooper expresses further unease with using OSP troopers to guard Kotek Wilson at official events in an email to Solario.

“My understanding of our agreed to policy from a few months ago was DPU would attend if there was a security need or risk (i.e.: going to the state hospital or a prison) and we would avoid having them take the place of being the driver as that is not their role,” Cooper writes. “I would say her attending things in lieu of the Governor is not the correct lens — the Governor has DPU with her at all times, including going to the grocery store, so that is opening a new can of worms.”

Feb. 7, 2024

Tibbs sends an email to Juliana Wallace, a behavioral health aide in the office, with concerns about a recent incident where Kotek asked Wallace to call Cascadia Behavioral Health — a nonprofit where Kotek Wilson once worked — on behalf of a friend of Kotek Wilson’s.

“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 (I can’t remember the exact situation but not sure the exact details matter),” Tibbs writes.

She notes that the situation “felt awkward at best” and caused confusion at Cascadia “as to why the Gov’s office was calling.” Tibbs suggests that a newly hired staff member be required to report any time Kotek or Kotek Wilson ask her to do something — and suggests that the governor and first lady have crossed the line with such requests in the past.

“I also want to just recognize again that requests, and actions by the [first lady] and/or Governor like the ones above are indeed highly inappropriate at best, and you flagging this and anything else that doesn’t feel right for me and Coop is totally the right thing to do,” Tibbs writes. “The Governor has been reminded several times now of the power she and the [first lady] hold in this office and externally and the appropriate use of their power.”

Asked about this incident this week, Kotek said in a statement: “I can confirm that I was made aware of a potential workplace safety issue at Cascadia Behavioral Health and directed staff to follow up. When Oregonians raise concerns about a safety issue, I will always consider the appropriate steps to address it.”

Feb. 9, 2024

With Kotek pressing to give her wife a more formal role and job description, Cooper writes that she and other senior aides want to sit down to discuss, among other things, “hiring a professional facilitator to support you and the leadership team in working through next steps.”

Feb. 19, 2024

In advance of an upcoming meeting on the subject of the first lady, Tibbs refers to a legal memo and formal job description that’s been created around Kotek Wilson’s expanding role. “I’m hoping [Gov. Tina Kotek] will share with us with as much clarity as possible what her reaction is to the legal memo and job description before we talk about next steps. I totally respect that this is ultimately her decision just think it needs to land.’”

March 8, 2024

The director of the Department of Administrative Services, Berri Leslie, tells Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Warner that the department’s legislative director, Meliah Masiba, has agreed to do a six-month rotation as Kotek Wilson’s chief of staff — another sign of the first lady’s expanded influence.

March 10, 2024

Tibbs notes in an email that, after advice from staff, Kotek has “clearly made a decision to move forward on the [first lady] role in her own way/direction including a [chief of staff] position out of the gate.”

Tibbs goes on to flag concerns, wanting to ensure “that there is a written job description for this position and that the responsibilities are for a full time position” and “that there are clear and transparent expectations about how the position fits into the office structure,” among other things.

March 14, 2024

Shelby Campos, the operations manager of the governor’s office, asks top aides how to move forward with scheduling travel for Masiba, Kotek Wilson’s new chief of staff. The questions reflect the confusion that existed in the governor’s office about the change.

“Given we have not historically had an Office of the First Lady and Meliah is starting so quickly, I would like to get clarification on the structure and guiding principles for the new office,” Campos writes, before listing a number of detailed questions about how Masiba’s new role fits into the office structure. “Are there any specific guidelines that govern the activities of the new office? How will this new structure be communicated to staff? Will there be clear guidelines provided to staff regarding their interactions and collaborations with the office of the [first lady]?”

March 15, 2024

Tibbs responds to Campos’ email from the day before with a thorough and direct email clearly laying out the many concerns she has about the expanding Office of the First Lady.

She indicates that she, Cooper and O’Brien for months have been raising questions about “use of public resources and office budget implications with [first spouse] staff/travel etc, the need for documented role clarity/job description for a [first spouse], an articulated plan to address power dynamics and reporting structure for a [first spouse], considerations for a [first spouse] directly/indirectly working with/directing [governor’s office[ staff (or agency staff) work…”

Tibbs contends that Kotek Wilson “should sign all the office policies and procedures ASAP since she has started to be in meetings with staff/time in the office again. We had requested that any movement in this direction (larger [first lady] role) be slow so as to not exacerbate an already complex situation and to mitigate risks to the greatest extent possible.”

It doesn’t end there. Tibbs also lays out a litany of concerts about “legal/ethical/workplace policy implications across a variety of areas even if the [first spouse] is a volunteer,” and says Kotek has a duty to go above and beyond state laws and ethics rules if she wants her wife to take such an active role.

By this point, Tibbs may have little concern about voicing her concerns so forcefully in an email she surely knew would be releasable as a public record. The same day, emails reveal she’ll be returning to Oregon Health & Science University, where she worked before taking on a temporary assignment with the governor.

March 18, 2024

Masiba announces in an internal email she’ll be leaving her role as legislative director at DAS to take on a six-month role assisting Kotek Wilson. In the absence of an announcement of that decision to the staff of the governor’s office, the email sets off alarm bells.

“I haven’t been in the loop on this decision, their messaging, or the timing of any of these announcements,” O’Brien writes in an email that day to Warner. “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.”

March 20, 2024

Cooper appears to have been fired. Records show she signs a “transition agreement” that will grant her an eight-month role as a senior advisor to DAS Director Berri Leslie. She will keep her $303,000 salary during that time. Current and former state employees have characterized the agreement as a stand-in for a severance agreement.

March 22, 2024

Kotek calls an all-staff meeting in the morning, before an announcement goes out publicly that Cooper has resigned from the office. Upon questions from media outlets, the governor’s office acknowledges that Tibbs is also leaving, and O’Brien is going on paid medical leave. The news spurs complaints with the government ethics commission, though the substance of those complaints is currently confidential.

April 3, 2024

Though internal emails show that Kotek has been working to expand her wife’s role for months, she announces she only now plans to ask the Oregon Government Ethics Commission about the legality of creating an Office of First Spouse. “I take feedback,” Kotek tells reporters. “I’m always interested to know what people’s questions are and we want to do this as transparently as possible.”

And despite emails clearly showing her senior aides were asking detailed questions about the new arrangement for some time, Kotek tells reporters: “We weren’t sure what questions we needed to ask. We are now expediting that because of the public interest and so going to the Ethics Commission to try to figure that out. I hope we can ask all the questions we need to have answered.”

Kotek says that news stories saying that Kotek Wilson’s role in the office led to the departures of Cooper, O’Brien and Tibbs are just “assumptions” and appears to characterize the shakeup as routine turnover.

April 26, 2024

The governor’s office releases 6,199 pages of emails, along with other records requested by news outlets. Kotek largely declines to answer questions posed by KLCC and OPB, citing personnel issues.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.
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