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Kitzhaber's fiance admits to sham marriage to immigrant 17 years ago

PORTLAND, Ore. - In a stunning admission Thursday, Gov. John Kitzhaber's fiance Cylvia Hayes admitted to illegally marrying an Ethiopian immigrant in the late 1990s for money and so he could stay in the United States to get a college degree.

Hayes said she was paid about $5,000 and made the "bad decision" to marry the man during a "difficult and unstable period" of her life and that she was "associating with the wrong people" at the time.

She said she used the money to buy a laptop and to pay for school expenses.

{>}{>}Watch Hayes' news conference

Willamette Week reported the man was Abraham B. Abraham, and he was 18 years old at the time of the marriage. Hayes was 11 years older.

Hayes apologized to the people of Oregon and to the governor for her actions and said Kitzhaber did not know about the marriage until this Tuesday.

"I was ashamed and embarrassed; therefore, I did not share this information even with John once we met and started dating," she said.

She also said she has retained a lawyer and is prepared to accept the consequences.

I "made a very serious illegal act 17 years ago," she said. "It was a marriage of convenience. He needed help, and I needed financial support."

KATU's news partners at Willamette Week broke the story Wednesday that she had married Abraham in July 1997 and had not previously disclosed the marriage. The newspaper reported that public records raised questions to the legitimacy of the marriage.

Hayes said she has not had any contact with Abraham since the divorce was finalized in 2002. She said she met him through mutual acquaintances while she attended Evergreen State College in Washington. She has been married and divorced three times.

Kitzhaber, a Democrat, was not with her during her afternoon news conference. He is running for an unprecedented fourth term as the state's governor this November. Republican State Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point is his main challenger.

Hayes said she asked the governor not to be with her, because "I can't not talk about this without crying when I look at him right now."

She said Kitzhaber was "stunned and hurt" when she told him about the sham marriage. She said she now has to focus on the couple's relationship.

In another Willamette Week story this week, the newspaper questioned the influence Hayes has as first lady and adviser to Kitzhaber and how that influence could benefit her private consulting business.

On Thursday, Hayes denied using her position as Oregon's first lady to land private consulting contracts.

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

Richardson said the admission calls into question Hayes' honesty about any of her financial dealings.

"It causes all of her actions to be under close scrutiny, because if she's willing to do that, what is she doing now that might also be indication that she's willing to take money when it's contrary to the law?" he said.

Kitzhaber and Hayes met in August 2002.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, marriage fraud is a threat to national security, to banks and diminishes the integrity of the country's immigration system. A person convicted of the felony could be sentenced up to five years in prison and fined up to $250,000.

Nigel Jaquiss, the Willamette Week reporter who broke the story, told KATU's Steve Dunn during an on-air interview Thursday evening that it's unlikely Hayes will face charges.

"We understand from talking to immigration lawyers that it is unlikely she will face legal repercussions (but) it's highly likely, some lawyers have told us, that he may, up to and including, possible deportation," Jaquiss said.

Rachel Wray, a spokeswoman for Kitzhaber, told KATU News late Thursday that the governor will comment on Hayes' admission Friday.

KATU's Bob Heye contributed.

Watch Hayes' full news conference below:

Richardson campaign statement:

The latest scandal raises some serious questions about the First Lady, and what's also concerning are the possible illegalities associated with her pay-to-play scandal. She likely broke the law in leveraging her official position with the governor to secure tens of thousands of dollars from groups for her own personal financial gain. At the very least it's unethical and may even be criminal.

It's clear from her past history that the First Lady has had no qualms about breaking the law in order to make financial gains. This is a pattern that appears to have continued in her career as a consultant and that work's conflict of interest with her official role as the First Lady.

Governor Kitzhaber had a responsibility to manage that conflict of interest in an appropriate way, and he did not. The Governor and First Lady are not above the law, and the state needs to take immediate action to investigate that matter.

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