Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's fiancée admitted Thursday that she violated the law when she married an immigrant seeking to retain residency in the United States. 

John Kitzhaber

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, seen earlier this year, came back for a third term as governor after several years out of office. (Steve Dipaola/Reuters)

Cylvia Hayes said in a tearful news conference that she believes she was paid around $5,000 US for the 1997 marriage. She said she was "associating with the wrong people" while struggling to put herself through college.

"It was wrong then and it is wrong now and I am here today to accept the consequences, some of which will be life-changing," Hayes said.

Hayes said she was "ashamed and embarrassed," and did not tell the governor about the marriage until a reporter from the Willamette Week newspaper began asking questions this week. She appeared alone before a podium in a downtown Portland office building, saying she asked Kitzhaber not to join her because she can't look at him without crying.

When she told Kitzhaber about the marriage, "he was stunned and he was hurt," Hayes said, pausing to fight tears. "And I will be eternally grateful for the beautiful, loving way he has supported me in this."

Hayes apologized to Kitzhaber, her friends and family, and to Oregonians, saying she deeply regrets not being upfront about "a serious mistake." The couple confirmed in August that they're engaged.

Governor Oregon First Lady

Cylvia Hayes, partner of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, speaks at a news conference in Portland on Thursday. Hayes has admitted that she violated the law when she married an immigrant seeking to retain residency in the United States. (Gosia Wozniacka/The Associated Press)

Hayes was twice divorced and just shy of her 30th birthday when she married an 18-year-old Ethiopian man. She was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and she said they were introduced by a mutual acquaintance.

Hayes said they never lived together, met only a handful of times and have not had any contact since the divorce was finalized in 2002.

"It was a marriage of convenience," Hayes said. "He needed help, and I needed financial support."

Marriage fraud is a federal felony, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, although there's a five-year statute of limitations. Those charged with marriage fraud may also be charged with other offenses such as visa fraud or making false statements.

Hayes had advised on energy, education issues

This spring, federal authorities launched an outreach campaign warning Americans about the consequences of marriage fraud. Officials say sham marriages pose a "significant security vulnerability."

Hayes said Thursday that she's hired a lawyer to help with potential legal consequences.

Hayes, 47, has openly discussed her hardscrabble childhood in Washington state and her struggle to support herself financially since high school.

Kitzhaber met Hayes when she ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 2002. Kitzhaber, who was governor from 1995 until 2003, divorced his second wife, Sharon, shortly after leaving office. Kitzhaber made a political comeback in 2010.

Though they have yet to marry, Kitzhaber refers to Hayes as the "first lady," and she has embraced the role of political spouse while continuing her work as an energy consultant. She has been active in developing Kitzhaber's energy and environmental policy. A story in Willamette Week on Wednesday said that Hayes has used her title as first lady and her role in advising the governor to advance her private consulting business.

Hayes said she'll step back from her work advising Kitzhaber for now.

Kitzhaber, a Democrat, is seeking a fourth term next month. He's the front-runner against Republican state Rep. Dennis Richardson, who has seized on the series of stories about Hayes to argue that Kitzhaber should be replaced.

"It's clear from her past history that the first lady has had no qualms with breaking the law in order to make financial gains," said Meredith Glacken, a spokeswoman for Richardson. "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."