Oregon governor’s staffers raised concerns about role of first lady before exits

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB) and Lauren Dake (OPB)
April 26, 2024 8:03 p.m. Updated: April 26, 2024 11:06 p.m.

Emails released Friday confirm that senior members of the governor’s team had questioned Aimee Kotek Wilson’s expanding role

FILE: Gov. Tina Kotek waves to the crowd, along with her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, after being sworn into office in 2023. Kotek WIlson has pressed for an expanded role in the governor's office, raising concerns that led to a shakeup last month.

FILE: Gov. Tina Kotek waves to the crowd, along with her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, after being sworn into office in 2023. Kotek WIlson has pressed for an expanded role in the governor's office, raising concerns that led to a shakeup last month.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


A top aide to Gov. Tina Kotek voiced worries about Aimee Kotek Wilson’s role in the administration earlier this year, after Kotek asked a staffer to do a favor for one of the first lady’s friends, newly released public records show.

Abby Tibbs, a former special adviser to Kotek, wrote to one of the governor’s behavioral health staffers on Feb. 7 to address a recent interaction the aide had had with Kotek. In the email, Tibbs suggested Kotek had directed the aide to contact Cascadia Behavioral Health, where Kotek Wilson once worked.

“I realize I never followed-up with you in writing about the situation we discussed about the Governor asking you to call Cascadia about a friend of the [first lady’s] who is upset with her supervisor,” Tibbs wrote to the aide, Juliana Wallace.

She went on to write that “actions by the FL and/or Governor like the ones above are indeed highly inappropriate at best,” and said that Kotek and her wife had been “reminded several times now” about using the power of the governor appropriately.

The email is one example of top staffers raising red flags about Kotek Wilson’s involvement in the administration, and perhaps a telling one. Tibbs was one of three aides to depart the office last month, in a shakeup that has been tied by knowledgeable sources to the first lady’s growing role in the office. Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper and Deputy Chief of Staff Lindsey O’Brien also left.

Kotek’s decision to grant her wife more authority despite such concerns has now created complications for her, a little more than a year into a four-year term. Tibbs, O’Brien and Cooper were key staffers in carrying out the governor’s agenda as she tries to address the state’s housing and addiction crises. Kotek also now faces ethics complaints over her wife’s role, though it’s still unclear if they are substantive.

Tibbs wasn’t alone in registering alarm. On March 18, O’Brien expressed concerns in an email to another senior aide, Chris Warner, that she hadn’t been kept in the loop about a decision to transfer a staffer from the Department of Administrative Services to support Kotek Wilson. That decision, the email suggested, had been made hastily.

“I’m concerned [governor’s office] 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,” O’Brien wrote.

Four days later, OPB and other outlets reported she would be taking leave from the office.

The emails, released to media organizations in response to public records requests, bolster a narrative first reported by OPB in late March: That the first lady’s expanding authority had played a key role in the departures of Cooper, O’Brien and Tibbs.

The three women aren’t the only staffers to leave. OPB reported April 9 that Lindsey Burrows, Kotek’s deputy general counsel, was departing the office to return to criminal defense law. And earlier this week, Communications Director An Do informed Kotek she will be resigning as of May 8, a development first reported by Willamette Week.

Since Kotek took office early last year, Kotek Wilson, who receives no paycheck, has begun attending meetings on behavioral health and other matters. She was given her own small office next to members of Kotek’s staff as her role grew. But when the governor signaled she would move forward with hiring an aide to assist her wife in March, those concerns reached a breaking point.


Cooper appears to have been fired, then granted an eight-month role in another state agency where she will keep her $303,000 salary – a deal that current and former state employees have characterized as a stand-in for a severance agreement. Tibbs returned to a former job at Oregon Health & Science University. O’Brien is on paid medical leave, though it is unclear whether she plans to return.

Collectively, the women represented three-fourths of Kotek’s most senior brain trust, and are widely credited as having central roles in bringing the governor’s vision to bear.

Kotek has characterized news stories reporting that the departures were tied to Kotek Wilson as “assumptions,” and has instead sought to portray the shakeup as run-of-the-mill turnover.

Emails included in a trove that stretches more than 6,000 pages give credence to the notion that the first lady’s expanding role was becoming an issue for staff.

On March 10, Tibbs wrote to other top aides in the office to note that “the Governor… has clearly made a decision to move forward on the [first lady] role in her own way/direction,” including by providing a chief of staff for Kotek Wilson. Tibbs had questions about how that new staffer would fit into the office.

“How are we ensuring that there is a written job description for this position and that the responsibilities are for a full time position, that there are clear and transparent expectations about how the position fits into the office structure?” she wrote.

Two days later, O’Brien chimed in on the matter, asking that the governor’s executive team be notified when a position description was created for Kotek Wilson’s new aide.

“I think there will be a lot of questions and concerns,” O’Brien wrote.

On March 15, Tibbs laid out those concerns clearly.

Responding to questions raised by Shelby Campos, the governor’s office administrator, about how Kotek Wilson’s aide would fit into the office, Tibbs referred to “the additional issues that [Andrea Cooper], Lindsey [O’Brien] and I have advocated be addressed over the last several months related to use of public resources and office budget implications with [first spouse] staff/travel etc.”

“I continue to believe that the office has an obligation to not only meet the letter of the law/ethics rules but exceed them and center the spirit of the laws/ethics rules because there are significant issues of public trust and the obligation to the people of Oregon,” Tibbs wrote. “To that end, the 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.”

Despite what appears to be clear signals of concern by her most-senior aides, Kotek pressed on. In late March, she hired a new employee whose role it is to support Kotek Wilson while the governor explores the idea of creating an Office of the First Spouse. Kotek also directed Oregon State Police to provide bodyguards for her wife whenever Kotek Wilson is attending official events.

It’s not uncommon around the country for first spouses to take on official roles, though the nature of their duties varies widely from state to state. But Kotek Wilson’s expanding influence is perhaps particularly fraught in Oregon, where former Gov. John Kitzhaber was forced to resign in 2015 after revelations that his fiancée profited off of the influence she held in the governor’s office.

Kotek’s office asked the Government Ethics Commission for guidance on creating an Office of the First Spouse on April 5 – weeks after announcing the staff departures that appear to have been prompted by the idea.

By then publicity on the matter had already spurred formal ethics complaints against Kotek. The details of those complaints are not yet public, but the ethics commission has said it can not answer Kotek’s questions about her spouse’s role until they are resolved.

In the meantime, Kotek has begun filling the holes left by the recent shakeup.

This story may be updated.