Oregon Roiled by Politician's Sordid Secret
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; Page A01
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Neil Goldschmidt, the visionary former politician who transformed this Northwest city into a cool and enviable place to live, was back this year doing the deals he does so well.
Not since his surprise retirement after one term as governor in 1991, when he was only 50 and wildly popular, had his profile been so high. The former mayor of Portland and secretary of transportation under President Jimmy Carter had taken command of a statewide push to improve higher education. Now 63 and adept in the art of cashing in on his good name, he was also the public face for an out-of-state attempt to buy Oregon's largest utility.
Then, a sordid 30-year-old secret, one that Goldschmidt had paid about $250,000 to hide away, oozed out of the shadows. Willamette Week, an alternative newspaper in Portland, obtained court documents showing that Goldschmidt, while mayor during the mid-1970s, had sex on many occasions with a 14-year-old girl. The revelation, which continues to mesmerize and depress people across Oregon, has destroyed the sterling reputation and lucrative career of the man who put Portland on the national map.
He started having sex with the girl when he was 35 and married, as Goldschmidt hurriedly admitted before Willamette Week could get its full story on newsstands. She was a babysitter for his young children and the daughter of a neighbor who worked in his office. To head off a lawsuit, Goldschmidt told the Oregonian newspaper he had been paying her money since 1994.
In Oregon, sex with a girl younger than 16 is third-degree rape, but in this case, the statute of limitations had long since expired. The girl, now 41 and living in Nevada, has not been identified publicly, and she has insisted in two recent interviews with Oregon-based reporters that Goldschmidt was not the man who abused her.
Since the story exploded in the first week of May, Oregon has become obsessed with all things Goldschmidt: Whom else might he have paid off to keep his secret? Was his behavior part of a pattern? And why did first-day coverage in the state's most powerful newspaper seem to go so easy on him, calling his behavior an "affair" and describing his apology as "heartfelt."
Some Republicans in the state legislature are demanding that photographs of the former Democratic governor be removed from the capitol.
"It is important for the legislature to make a strong and clear statement that we support the victim and can no longer honor the service of someone who built his career on a lie," said Rep. Tim Knopp, a Republican from rural eastern Oregon. "He made millions as a consultant playing on his image of trust, while his victim suffered irreparable psychological damage."
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat and longtime friend and protégé of Goldschmidt, does not support removal of the photographs. But at the request of the state bar association, Goldschmidt surrendered his law license last week.
Oregon news media are frantically digging into what, if anything, Goldschmidt might have done as mayor, governor and private-sector rainmaker to reward those who helped him keep his secret.
In a handwritten note, Goldschmidt, as governor, tried to use his influence to help a business venture by Robert K. Burtchaell, a private investigator who became an intermediary between Goldschmidt and the girl.
Finger-pointing has also turned on the Oregonian, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper that dominates state politics and has the largest circulation in the Northwest. The newspaper has been dogged by questions -- from inside and outside the newsroom -- about why it was scooped and then seemed to allow its catch-up coverage to be spun by Goldschmidt.
"The pain and damage that I have caused have been with me constantly," Goldschmidt said in a teary statement he gave only to the Oregonian, whose reporters and editors he sought out May 6, just hours after his lawyer had met with Willamette Week.
The weekly had told the lawyer it had documentary evidence on sexual encounters with the girl. It wanted an explanation, but instead Goldschmidt's public relations people called the Oregonian.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company