Oregon’s secretary of state said Thursday she had a private conversation with embattled Gov. John Kitzhaber that was “strange” and contradictory and that she is ready to take over as governor should he resign over an ethics scandal.

Kate Brown said the governor had asked her to fly back to Oregon from a conference in Washington, D.C., but when she arrived, he asked why she had returned.

“This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation,” Brown said in a statement. She is a Democrat, as is Kitzhaber.

She said Kitzhaber told her he’s not resigning, but then began a discussion about a transition.

Brown would automatically become governor if Kitzhaber steps aside in the wake of influence-peddling allegations involving his fiancee, a green-energy consultant.

Until Thursday’s statement, Brown had avoided weighing in on the controversy surrounding Kitzhaber. Her move further isolates him from other senior Democrats, none of whom have come to his aid.

Kitzhaber’s future has been the subject of intense speculation in Oregon. He told some of his aides he was stepping down and summoned Brown from Washington, then changed his mind while she was traveling, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation.

They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about private discussions.

It’s not clear why Kitzhaber, a four-term governor who handily won re-election in November, decided he would stay put despite mounting criticism over allegations his fiancée used his office to win contracts for her consulting business. He issued a vague statement on Wednesday explaining he was not resigning.

“I was elected to do a job for the people of this great state, and I intend to continue to do so,” Kitzhaber said, repeating a refrain he’s uttered at least twice in the past two weeks.

Newspaper editorial boards and Republicans have called on him to leave office over allegations involving his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, who has been under increasing scrutiny since October, when a series of reports chronicled her work for organizations with an interest in Oregon public policy. That work came about when she was serving as an unpaid adviser in the governor’s office.

Amid the attention, Hayes revealed that she accepted about $5,000 to illegally marry an immigrant seeking immigration benefits in the 1990s. Later, she acknowledged purchasing a remote property with the intent to illegally grow marijuana.

Kitzhaber has denied any wrongdoing, saying he and Hayes took steps to avoid conflicts of interest. Though questions about Hayes have swirled for months, the pressure on Kitzhaber intensified in recent weeks after newspapers raised questions about whether Hayes reported all her income to on her tax returns.

In early February, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she was launching a criminal investigation.

A fiercely private person, Kitzhaber has been forced to answer embarrassing and personal questions about his relationship. In response to questions at a news conference last month, Kitzhaber told reporters that he’s in love with Hayes, but he’s not blinded by it.

With the scandal surrounding Kitzhaber overshadowing the state legislative session, which began last week, the governor met separately with Democratic legislative leaders Tuesday.

He told Portland TV station KGW that he wanted to discuss how his presence would affect the legislative agenda.

Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, both Democrats, declined to say what was discussed, but Courtney indicated that it was a difficult meeting.

“That was not a ‘Hi, how are you’ meeting,” said Courtney, who, like Kitzhaber, is among the state’s most enduring political figures. “I’m not smooth today. I’m not cool today. I don’t have the nice cookie-cutter press release statement today.”


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