Oregon First Lady Cylvia Hayes regularly speaks about her hardscrabble background—a childhood in poverty, her struggle to get through school, and her two marriages before meeting Gov. John Kitzhaber, to whom she is now engaged. It's a narrative that has been widely reported by media around the state.

On Wednesday, WW published a story about the private consulting work Hayes, 47, has performed while first lady. In the story, we reported Hayes had actually been married and divorced three times. That's a small detail that might seem otherwise unremarkable.

But records reviewed by WW raise questions about the husband Hayes has never acknowledged. 

In 1997, King County, Wash., marriage records show, Hayes married a teenage Ethiopian immigrant 11 years younger than she. It's not clear why Hayes entered into the marriage and why she has kept it secret. However, public records raise questions about whether the marriage was legitimate or whether it was a way to help the young man with his immigration status.

Obtaining residency or citizenship for an immigrant through marriage to a legal resident is often called a "green card marriage." It is a federal crime for both participants if it is determined that the marriage is a sham and executed solely for the purpose of obtaining immigration benefits. It's illegal whether or not the U.S. citizen is paid to take part in the marriage.

Kitzhaber's office referred all questions to Hayes. Hayes declined to answer questions about the marriage.

"I am planning on releasing a statement tomorrow, but I want to answer one question directly tonight," Hayes told WW in an email Wednesday night. "The governor did not know about this third marriage until yesterday afternoon."

Hayes' third marriage was to Abraham B. Abraham, who is now 35 and living in the Washington, D.C., area. Abraham declined to respond to WW's calls and and texts. He also declined to speak to a reporter who went to his home Wednesday night.

Hayes and Abraham married on July 19, 1997. The couple filed for divorce four years and three months later.

When she married Abraham, Hayes was three weeks shy of her 30th birthday. Court records show she had divorced her second husband three months earlier.

Abraham, who listed his birthplace as Ethiopia on the marriage certificate, had just finished his freshman year at a college in North Carolina. He was 18.

WW found no record of Hayes and Abraham having ever lived together during their marriage.

Abraham was enrolled in Greensboro College in North Carolina, according to the school's registrar. The college's records show his legal address during college was in Montlake Terrace, Wash., a Seattle suburb.

On the marriage certificate, Hayes listed her home as a different address, in Renton, Wash., also a suburb of Seattle. That summer, Hayes moved to Bend by herself. She told The Oregonian in 2011 that she was broke and lived in her car on Bureau of Land Management property. Records show in January 1999 Hayes got an Oregon driver's license. There are no records showing Abraham ever lived in Oregon.

Court records show Hayes and Abraham listed December 1999 as their date of "separation." They filed for divorce in October 2001. That was five months after Abraham graduated magna cum laude with a degree in mathematics.

In their divorce filing, Hayes and Abraham said they had no joint property or debts. The two divorced without engaging lawyers, and a King County, Wash., judge declared the divorce final in February 2002. Four months later, Hayes ran as a Democrat for the Oregon House of Representatives. She lost the race to then-Rep. Ben Westlund (R-Bend).

Several people who know Hayes expressed surprise to learn that she had been married three times. One was her second husband, Douglas McCarthy, who was divorced from Hayes  in April 1997. McCarthy says he was unaware of Abraham. "I didn't even know she got married again," McCarthy, who lives in Olympia, Wash., tells WW. "That's news to me."

Immigration rules say a foreign national's marriage to a U.S. citizen is one pathway to gaining citizenship. Federal law requires that the foreign national has been "living in marital union" for three years.

 

Tilman Hasche, a Portland immigration lawyer, says it is a federal crime for a U.S. citizen to enter into a marriage for the exclusive or overriding reason of obtaining immigration benefits. Immigration status can be a factor for a marriage. "It just can't be the overriding and exclusive reason," he said.

WW staff writer Beth Slovic and contributors Maureen O'Hagan and Anthony Rivera helped report this story.