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Top Kotek staff were concerned about first lady’s role, security requests, records show

Top staff in Gov. Tina Kotek’s office raised concerns internally about first lady Aimee Kotek Wilson’s growing role in the administration, public records released Friday show.

The governor’s office began releasing thousands of pages of emails and other correspondence on Friday afternoon in response to March records requests from the Capital Chronicle and other media outlets. A preliminary review of those documents shows that staff had deep concerns about the governor and Kotek Wilson crossing ethical lines and compromising the office’s ability to effectively tackle the state’s pressing housing and behavioral health issues.

In one March 15 email, special adviser Abby Tibbs flagged concerns about creating an “Office of the First Spouse” and whether it would negatively impact morale and confidence in the governor’s office.

“(T)he office should take meaningful steps to address the appearance/perception related to a governor and spouse and staff re conflicts of interest, favoritism, bias, nepotism issues, complicated power dynamics, conflict resolution, retaliation – the things that can really impact (governor’s office) staff morale and sense of stability and the confidence in a (governor’s office) overall,” she wrote.

A week later, Tibbs and Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper abruptly left the office and deputy chief of staff Lindsey O’Brien took an indefinite leave of absence in a shakeup that observers in Salem attributed to tensions over Kotek Wilson’s role in Kotek’s office. Kotek has remained mum on the reason for their departures, insisting through spokespeople and in a contentious news conference earlier in April that she would not comment on personnel matters. 

“I have more questions after, than I did before, even though I had a suspicion Coop was leaving.” 

–Jesse Hyatt, governor’s aide

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is investigating ethics complaints filed against Kotek, and questions she posed to the ethics commission after the three staffers left are on hold until that investigation is resolved. The records provided by the governor’s office Friday show that top staff were concerned months before the departures about ethics and optics of Kotek Wilson’s involvement in the office and perks provided to her, including protection from Oregon State Police.

On Feb. 7, for instance, Tibbs emailed Juliana Wallace, Kotek’s director of behavioral health initiatives, to follow up on an earlier conversation about Kotek asking Wallace to call Cascadia Behavioral Health on behalf of an employee and friend of Kotek Wilson’s who was having issues with her supervisor. Tibbs wrote that the situation “felt awkward at best,” and that she was concerned a new hire would be put in a similar uncomfortable position. 

“I also want to just recognize again that requests and actions by the FL and/or governor like the ones above are indeed highly inappropriate at best, and you flagging this and anything else that doesn’t feel right for me and (Cooper) is totally the right thing to do,” Tibbs wrote. “The governor has been reminded several times now of the power she and the FL hold in this office and the appropriate use of their power.”

In another exchange on Jan. 17, Cooper questioned why state police planned to drive Kotek Wilson to a speaking engagement at a lesbian history exhibit at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. 

“Was there a security reason for y’all to drive her?” Cooper wrote to Michael Bates, the Oregon State Police sergeant in charge of the Dignitary Protection Unit. Bates told Cooper he didn’t have any security concerns but that Kotek Wilson had requested security during a scheduling meeting. He planned to go personally, saying “it would give me some time with her to catch up on things.” 

A couple weeks later, when Kotek Wilson wanted the Dignitary Protection Unit to escort her to the Portland Japanese Garden for a March event, Cooper wrote to Kotek Wilson’s assistant that she would defer to Bates but that her understanding was that Kotek Wilson would only receive police protection if there was a security need or risk, such as visiting the Oregon State Hospital or a prison. 

“With that said, I’m not sure the security need for (Kotek Wilson’s earlier approved visit to the University of Oregon’s museum), so perhaps the policy has changed (I was not in the scheduling meeting)? I would say her attending things in lieu of the Governor is not the correct lens – the Governor has DPU with her at all times, including going to the grocery store, so that is opening a new can of worms. Happy to rediscuss the policy if desired, but again, it’s up to Sgt. Bates and his team’s time and resources,” she wrote. 

After Cooper and other employees left the office, Kotek confirmed that she directed state police beginning in March to consistently provide security for Kotek Wilson when she attended events as a representative of the governor’s office.

The scheduling meeting wasn’t the only time Kotek’s top staff were left out of the loop. On March 18, O’Brien forwarded a message to Chris Warner, Kotek’s new chief of staff, from Meliah Masiba, who let her know that she was moving from the Department of Administrative Services to the governor’s office to work for Kotek Wilson.

“I haven’t been in the loop on this decision, their messaging, or the timing of any of these announcements,” O’Brien wrote. “I’m concerned GO staff are hearing about this for the first time from DAS with no context from us – we probably need to address it in tomorrow’s team meeting.”

Other emails helped demonstrate the extent of Kotek Wilson’s involvement in policy decisions. On Jan. 17, Kotek wrote to Cooper and Tibbs that she had been strategizing with the first lady about how her office would approach behavioral health in 2024. She wanted a “white board strategy meeting” with Kotek, Kotek Wilson, and various top staff from the governor’s office and other agencies.

Cooper and O’Brien also exchanged emails Jan. 25 about concerns over Kotek Wilson’s plans to attend several events on behalf of the governor’s office and the toll it would take on executive branch staff. Cooper wrote that she was “asked not to attend” the scheduling meeting where those events were discussed and didn’t have a chance to weigh in on impacts to Kotek’s communications staff.

O’Brien responded that she was “hoping we can reset expectations” so only Kotek Wilson’s assistant would be required to attend. 

“But imagine more discussion is needed and happy to do that when it makes sense,” O’Brien continued. 

Other emails show that Kotek directed communications staff to get Kotek Wilson to sign off on any photos posted to social media. 

In another January exchange, O’Brien noted that Labor Commissioner Christina Stephenson was confused by Kotek Wilson being added to the invite list for a meeting the elected official had with Kotek. 

Other records provided Friday indicated that staff within the governor’s office and Cooper herself were surprised and saddened by her departure. In one email on her last day in the office, Cooper thanked an assistant, Jennifer Andrew, for her help with logistics and added “I will give you a proper goodbye when I can wrap my head around it.”

Shortly before an announcement went out about Cooper’s departure, ​the office’s business equity manager, Jesse Hyatt, texted interim economic development and workforce adviser Vince Porter, “I have more questions after, than I did before, even though I had a suspicion Coop was leaving.” 

 Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact [email protected].

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