PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said Friday he was hurt when his fiancee revealed she entered into a fraudulent marriage with an immigrant in 1997, and he rejected his election challenger's demand for a special prosecutor to look into her consulting business.
Kitzhaber addressed the stunning confession by his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, for the first time in a debate with his Republican rival. The confession came just days before voters begin casting ballots in Oregon's all-mail election, complicating the Democratic governor's march toward his likely election to a fourth term next month.
"I learned this three days ago," Kitzhaber said at the City Club of Portland. "I was obviously very taken aback by it and hurt. I have some processing to do on that."
On Thursday, Hayes held a news conference to admit she broke the law and apologize.
Hayes was a 29-year-old college student when she married an 18-year-old man from Ethiopia. She said she was in need of cash at the time, and kept the marriage secret from Kitzhaber because she was ashamed and embarrassed.
Kitzhaber said it took courage for Hayes to hold the news conference, and he's proud of her. He indicated the wedding will still happen, "hopefully soon."
"This is now a very personal issue," Kitzhaber said. "And we just need some time to work through this together."
Kitzhaber's Republican opponent, state Rep. Dennis Richardson, treaded carefully on the marriage issue, trying to steer the conversation toward a story in the Willamette Week newspaper saying Hayes used her position as first lady to advance her consulting business.
Richardson called for Kitzhaber to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the allegations, a suggestion Kitzhaber rejected.
"You can't be the governor's adviser while you take money from those that want access," Richardson said.
Hayes has helped Kitzhaber develop his energy and environmental policy, and she also has earned money from organizations that seek to influence state policy.
"We did not violate the law," Kitzhaber said. "We have simply given a modern professional woman an opportunity to continue her career."
In the unusually spirited debate, Richardson offered his sharpest critique yet of Kitzhaber in a final push to become Oregon's first Republican governor in nearly three decades. He said Kitzhaber has presided over the "single-most inept and unethical administration in the history of the state of Oregon."
"What else are we going to find out? What is still hidden?" Richardson said. "Oregon voters, enough is enough."
Hayes' revelation about the sham marriage was prompted by questions from the Willamette Week.
The marriage issue is unlikely to affect Kitzhaber's re-election prospects, said Len Bergstein, a lobbyist and political consultant who works on ballot measure campaigns in Oregon.
However, the contracting questions could be perilous for the governor, particularly if Richardson can get enough money to highlight it, Bergstein said.
Campaign finance records show Richardson has only $100,000 in the bank. Oregon has no contribution limits, so a small number of wealthy donors could shake up the race at any time.
"They need a lot of money to be able to put behind it to make it an issue that's really front and center," Bergstein said.
Follow AP reporter Jonathan J. Cooper at http://twitter.com/jjcooper .