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Oregon's First Lady Admits She Married Immigrant For Cash

Gosia Wozniacka
AP Photo
Cylvia Hayes, fiancee of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, cries as she speaks at a news conference in Portland, Ore. on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014.

Oregon’s first lady said she committed a federal crime 17 years ago. Cylvia Hayes told reporters Thursday that she married a man for the sole purpose of helping him get a green card.

She said the confession came as a surprise even to the man who, this summer, became her fiancé: the governor of Oregon.

He needed help and she needed the money. That’s what Hayes said was the driving factor behind her 1997 marriage to an 18-year-old Ethiopian college student. The fraud worked. Her new husband got a green card. Hayes got $5,000.

“We met only a handful of times,” Hayes said. "We never lived together. I have not had any contact with him since the divorce finalized in 2002.”

The marriage remained a secret for the next 12 years. Hayes said even the man she got engaged to this summer had no idea.

“John Kitzhaber deserved to know the history of the person he was forming a relationship with,” Hayes said. “The fact that I did not disclose this to him meant that he has learned about this in the most public and unpleasant way. This is by far my greatest sorrow in this difficult situation.”

Hayes grew up in a difficult situation. She was raised in what she describes as a shack in rural Washington. At age 16 she was out on her own.

Hayes said in a 2012 interview that she’s struggled financially for most of her life.

“I know exactly what it’s like to have to choose between paying the rent on time or paying the electricity bill before it gets shut off,” she said. “I know what it’s like to need to go to the doctor but have to put that off because you don’t have the resources.”

But through her work with sustainable energy issues, Hayes met John Kitzhaber, then the ex-governor of Oregon. Kitzhaber was divorced and the two became a couple. And when the Democrat was sent back to office by voters in 2010, Hayes became the state’s first lady, even though the two aren’t married.

Hayes has maintained a busy schedule and even showed up late to the governor’s re-election announcement last December.

That busy schedule is filled with consulting gigs. The Willamette Week newspaper reported those jobs earned her tens of thousands of dollars. The paper implied that Hayes was using her title to secure those contracts.

Hayes denied any ethical wrongdoing during her Thursday press conference:

“I can tell you that we have been very proactively cautious and sought legal advice for both of those things, what I could and could not do professionally and what I could and could not do as first lady,” she said.

But as for her 1997 marriage to a teenager seeking a green card? That, she said, was a serious mistake. Hayes said she has hired an attorney to help her deal with any legal ramifications, but it’s unlikely she’ll be charged with a crime since the statute of limitations has expired.

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.