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Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber Responds To Fiancee's Illegal Marriage

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber responded Friday to revelations that his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, once accepted money to marry an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant seeking a Green Card in the U.S.

Speaking at a gubernatorial debate hosted by OPB's Think Out Loud and the Portland City Club, Kitzhaber said he was shocked to learn about the sham marriage.

"I was obviously very taken aback by it and hurt. I have some processing to do on that end," said Kitzhaber.

The governor also said he was proud of Hayes for holding a press conference and admitting to the marriage. "We just need to work through this together," Kitzhaber said.

On Thursday, Hayes confessed to marrying the teenaged immigrant in 1997, when she was 30 years old and attending graduate school at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Marriage fraud is considered a federal crime.

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

She said she was paid about $5,000 for the sham marriage, which she used to purchase school supplies, like a laptop.

Hayes did not tell Kitzhaber about the marriage. She said he first learned of it after the first report surfaced Wednesday in Portland's Willamette Week.

“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.”

State Rep. Dennis Richardson, Kitzhaber's Republican challenger for the governor's office, said the marriage issue was one for the couple to deal with privately.

"On the issue related to the sham marriage, I feel for the governor," said Richardson. "This isn’t something that involves us."

Think Out Loud host and debate moderator Dave Miller also asked Kitzhaber about a potential conflict of interest for Hayes alleged this week in an article by Willamette Week. The newspaper reported that Hayes " has pushed for economic and energy policies while accepting payments from private advocacy groups seeking to influence those same policies."

Kitzhaber dismissed those allegations as inaccurate.

"We do not agree with the assertions made by the Willamette Week," said Kitzhaber.

The governor added that his office was careful to examine potential conflicts of interest around Hayes' position as First Lady before she made any deals outside of that office.

But Richardson said Hayes' involvement with state policy was a clear conflict of interest in his opinion. He called on the Kitzhaber to hire a special prosecutor to independently investigate the allegations.

"If Oregon statutes have been violated, no one is above the law," said Richardson.

Kitzhaber said he didn't agree that a special prosecutor was necessary.

<p>John Kitzhaber at Friday's gubernatorial debate.</p>
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John Kitzhaber at Friday's gubernatorial debate.

Copyright 2014 Oregon Public Broadcasting