Kotek Digs In: No Changes in First Lady’s Role but Will Seek Ethics Commission Guidance

The governor declines to address high-level staff departures nor does she plan do anything differently in the wake of the shake-up.

Gov. Tina Kotek. (Blake Benard)

Gov. Tina Kotek told reporters today she is not making any immediate changes in the role of first lady Aimee Kotek Wilson, but she will seek guidance from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission this week on the proposed Office of the First Lady.

“We want to set up policies and procedures so staff will feel comfortable with her role,” Kotek told reporters.

There had been speculation in the Capitol this morning that Kotek would announce the removal of her wife from any involvement in policy or the workings of her office, but in response to questions about whether anything would change, she said nothing would be different until the OGEC offers advice.

The decision to consult the OGEC comes less than two weeks after Kotek’s chief of staff, Andrea Cooper, and two other senior advisers abruptly left the governor’s office. Neither Cooper, nor the two senior advisers, Abby Tibbs and Lindsey O’Brien, have commented publicly on the reasons for their departure, but people familiar with the inner workings of the office say the cause was ongoing tensions over Kotek Wilson’s role.

The first lady, who has spoken openly about her struggles with mental health and alcohol, has attended some staff meetings about behavioral health, one of Kotek’s top priorities. “She has both lived and professional experience that are relevant,” Kotek said. “But at the end of the day, I make all the policy decisions. The buck stops with me.”

But senior staff reportedly felt that Kotek Wilson was far more than an observer and, in fact, injected herself into policy discussions in ways that created tensions and uncertainty for staff.

Staff members did not raise concerns that Kotek Wilson was acting unethically or in ways that could benefit her financially, so it is unclear how advice from the OGEC might affect the future inner workings of the governor’s office. The OGEC primarily enforces state laws prohibiting conflicts of interest and the use of public office for private gain. The conflict in the governor’s office that led to staff departures, however, stemmed not from whether to fund and staff an Office of the First Lady but rather over the first lady’s role in policy matters.

Unlike some states, Oregon has never defined a role for the first spouse in statute, nor has it provided specific funding to support the role. Currently, Kotek Wilson has a scheduler, and a staffer moved into the governor’s office late last month from the Oregon Department of Administrative Services on a six-month rotation to work for the first lady.

“We are figuring this out as we go,” Kotek told reporters.

Kotek declined to discuss the staff departures, calling them a “personnel matter.” The governor hopes to submit questions to the OGEC by Friday. Both her questions and the responses the agency gives will be a matter of public record.

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