A May 17 article about former Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt's admission that he had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s incorrectly said that Goldschmidt surrendered his law license at the request of the state bar association. Officials of the Oregon State Bar began an investigation of Goldschmidt's conduct and he voluntarily surrendered his license, which ended the investigation. The article misstated the woman's current age: She is now 43, not 41. It also misspelled the name of Portland radio talk show host Lars Larson. (Published 5/18/04)
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 protege 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.
"I apologize now, publicly and completely," he told the newspaper, just before dropping out of public sight. He has left the state out of concern for his recently diagnosed heart condition, said Brian Gard, his spokesman.
The apology, though, seems less than complete. He said his "affair with a high school student" lasted for nearly a year, though documents dug up by Willamette Week suggest that it lasted for three years, from the time the girl was 14 until she was 17.
The confession that Goldschmidt gave exclusively to the Oregonian appeared to pay some coverage dividends, at least for one day's news cycle. On that first day, the paper published his version of the duration of the relationship. The benign language he used to characterize his encounters with the girl -- "affair" -- appeared in the banner front-page headline. An editorial was sympathetic.
Headlined "Goldschmidt's tragic choice," it called him a "tack-sharp, charismatic leader" and said his decision to step aside from public service and business activities was an "an incalculable loss." The paper said, "There's no one else in Oregon like Neil Goldschmidt."
The editorial, together with the "affair" headline, provoked angry letters to the editor and started a storm on statewide talk radio that has yet to die down.
"Goldschmidt dropped an interview in the Oregonian's lap so it would not be completely skunked on this huge story," said Lars Larsen, a conservative talk show host on KXL-AM Portland. "In exchange, the paper gave him the most favorable treatment I can imagine to a confessed rapist. People are calling in to complain that it was absolutely scurrilous of the paper to characterize this as an affair."
Inside the newspaper, too, there was disgust. Steve Duin, a columnist, complained about "reverential" coverage. "We are dealing with a child molester," he told editors, according to an internal memo sent to reporters at the paper.
Duin went on to compare coverage of Goldschmidt to the most embarrassing missed story in the Oregonian's recent history, when it failed in 1992 to pursue allegations of womanizing by then-Sen. Bob Packwood. "Readers might think we'd learned nothing from Packwood and that we are hands-off people in power," Duin said, according to the memo.
The editorial page has since published a much tougher assessment of Goldschmidt's behavior, adding, "Our critics are correct in noting that we did not adequately address the wreckage Goldschmidt caused in the life of the girl he seduced." Bob Caldwell, the editorial page editor, said that "in retrospect, we should have focused more on this relationship."
On Sunday, the paper's public editor concluded that the pursuit of the story "had not risen to the attention that, in hindsight, it deserved." And the managing editor for enterprise, Stephen Engelberg, said in an interview that his paper got beat on a big story, but that it was now aggressively looking back at three decades of Oregon history to see what Goldschmidt might have done to keep his secret. One of those in-depth looks appeared Sunday, examining the role of Burtchaell, the private investigator who became an intermediary between Goldschmidt and the girl.
"There is no comparison between this and the Packwood story," Engelberg said. "In this case, we were bested on a story we were pursuing. No editor here said we shouldn't go full speed on this story. That is the crucial difference."
For many Oregonians who have known and respected Goldschmidt over the decades, the story remains difficult to comprehend.
"In what he has done and what he has meant for this state, Neil belongs among the political icons of the past 50 years," said Angus Duncan, who worked for Goldschmidt when he was mayor and secretary of transportation. "He was a larger-than-life creature who left a durable impact on the landscape."
Portland, itself, testifies to Goldschmidt's skills as a leader. He was among the first mayors in the United States to understand how too many highways can strangle a city. He killed a federal highway that would have cut through the heart of Portland, redirecting the money to light rail, a waterfront park and neighborhood development.
On his watch, the city began its rebirth as a hip place to hang out and a safe place to raise children. Later, as governor, he recruited many of the companies that shifted the state's economic base from logging to high tech.
There is, though, one long-standing question about Goldschmidt's career that has been answered by the sex scandal: his puzzling retirement after just one term as governor.
Goldschmidt chose not to seek a second term at a time when there was a substantial risk that his relationship with the girl might be made public as part of a court dispute, according to documents found by Willamette Week.
As for the girl, Goldschmidt said he is "partly responsible for her difficulties coping with her life." She has had problems with alcohol and cocaine, was arrested many times and served time in a federal prison.
"I'm a good person just trying to live my life," she told the Oregonian in a recent interview. "I don't want my life screwed up any more."