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Ethics laws allow Oregon First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson to work in governor’s office, commission says

Tina Kotek with Aimee Kotek Wilson. The two are embracing and Tina Kotek is waving at an unseen audience.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
/
OPB
Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, left, with her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, waves to people gathered in the Senate chambers during her swearing-in ceremony at the state Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

The head of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission reiterated Tuesday that nothing in state ethics law prohibits First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson from serving as a volunteer in her wife’s administration — as long as she doesn’t use the role for personal financial gain.

That conclusion, provided in formal advice requested by Gov. Tina Kotek’s office, is hardly surprising. The ethics commission narrowly declined to launch an investigation into Kotek last month, after agency Director Susan Myers found there was not a “substantial objective basis” to believe the governor had broken laws against self-dealing by giving her wife office space, police protection and paid staff.

The advice released Tuesday bolstered that conclusion, and could pave the way for Kotek Wilson to take on a greater role in state affairs.

“It is possible for the First Partner, as a public official, to participate in the development of, advise on, and/or promote the Governor’s priorities, consistent with the ethical duties required of public officials,” Myers wrote.

But nothing in ethics law specifically authorizes that work, either, Myers pointed out. “Such authorization would necessarily come from sources other than the Government Ethics Laws,” she wrote.

As first lady, Kotek Wilson has had an unpaid role in the governor’s office since Kotek took office in early 2023. Records suggest she has focused primarily on behavioral health issues that are a key priority for the governor and in line with her own personal and professional background.

But Kotek Wilson’s role became a public flash point in late March, when three of the governor’s top aides abruptly left the office. Public records show those departures came after staff raised repeated concerns about Kotek Wilson carving out an expanded role in the office — along with the ethical pitfalls and tricky workplace dynamics that came along with it.

The revelations quickly drew comparisons to the 2015 ethics scandal that toppled former Gov. John Kitzhaber, whose fiancé illegally profited from her role in the governor’s office. Records released last week show that Abby Tibbs, a senior aide who left Kotek’s office in March, even shared the ethics investigation into Kitzhaber with then-Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper in December.

But no evidence has emerged that Kotek Wilson has benefitted beyond being given state staff, office space, and equipment to do her volunteer job. Public records suggest she has asked governor’s office staff to make phone calls on behalf of personal friends in at least two instances, but that’s not a breach of ethics laws.

In the advice released Tuesday after 5 p.m., Myers largely focuses on the state ethics laws Kotek Wilson must abide by as a public official. Those include filing a yearly statement of income, declaring conflicts of interest, and not using state resources for personal financial gain.

Myers also answered a question that wasn’t technically asked by Kotek’s office: Whether the governor is allowed to create a formal Office of the First Spouse, as Kotek had been working toward before Kotek Wilson’s role generated public backlash.

“It is not within the Commission’s jurisdiction to opine on whether the Governor’s Office can create an Office of the First Spouse or establish official duties for the First Partner,” Myers wrote.

States differ in how much of a formal role they grant their first spouses, and Oregon law says nothing on the matter beyond making clear that the first spouse counts as a public official. But Kotek appeared to firmly close the door on her plans to create an Office of the First Spouse in May.

“After listening to and reflecting on the concerns of Oregonians who have contacted my office, as well as the advice of staff, I want to be clear about next steps: There will not be an Office of the First Spouse,” Kotek said at a press conference in Salem on May 1. “There will not be a position of Chief of Staff to the First Spouse.”

But beyond that, details were fuzzy. Kotek declined to say whether Kotek Wilson would actually stop doing any of the tasks she’d taken on. And a highly paid staffer initially hired to be the first lady’s chief of staff continues to work with Kotek Wilson as an assistant and scheduler.

That staffer, Meliah Masiba, is also working on a manual that will clearly lay out the first lady’s role in the office, according to Kotek. That’s a document that public records suggest was already well underway in early March, but as of late June it was unfinished.

“The manual is currently being drafted,” Kotek spokesperson Elisabeth Shepard said in a June 28 email. “The final copy will be available for public reading upon completion. The target for completion is this summer.”

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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