On a fall evening two years ago, donors gathered during a conference at a Ritz-Carlton hotel near Washington to raise funds for a 31-year-old candidate for the Ohio legislature who was a rising star in evangelical politics.
Hours later, upstairs in a hotel guest room, an 18-year-old college student who had come to the event with his parents said the candidate unzipped his pants and fondled him in the middle of the night. The frightened teenager fled the room and told his mother and stepfather, who demanded action from the head of the organization hosting the conference.
“If we endorse these types of individuals, then it would seem our whole weekend together was nothing more than a charade,” the stepfather wrote to Tony Perkins, president of the Council for National Policy.
“Trust me . . . this will not be ignored nor swept aside,” replied Perkins, who also heads the Family Research Council, a prominent evangelical activist group. “It will be dealt with swiftly, but with prudence.”
The incident, described in emails and documents obtained by The Washington Post, never became public, nor did unspecified prior “similar incidents” Perkins referred to in a letter to candidate Wesley Goodman. The correspondence shows Perkins privately asked Goodman to drop out of the race and suspended him from the council, but Goodman continued his campaign and went on to defeat two fellow Republicans in a hotly contested primary before winning his seat a year ago.
Goodman, 33, abruptly resigned last week after state legislative leaders learned of what the House speaker called “inappropriate behavior related to his state office.” Local media outlets have reported that the behavior involved a consensual sexual encounter with a male visitor in his legislative office.
Emails and documents show that a small circle of people discussed the complaints about Goodman before he went on to later misconduct at the statehouse.
In Ohio, supporters of Goodman’s campaign wondered why they were not alerted to his past behavior.
“We are so sick of people knowing and doing nothing. If someone knew, they had an obligation to say something. That’s what you do. That’s how you hold society together,” said Thomas R. Zawistowski, president of Ohio Citizens PAC, a conservative group that endorsed Goodman.
Perkins did not respond to emails, phone calls or a message left at the office of the Family Research Council. Goodman declined to comment as did the stepfather, a member of the council who referred questions about the incident to Perkins. The Post does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent.
The Oct. 18, 2015, incident involving Goodman was discreetly handled by Perkins, the council's president and a prominent leader on the religious right. Goodman at the time was campaigning for office after an impressive run in Washington as a congressional aide who rose to managing director of a conservative coalition Perkins oversees. He worked for the Perkins-run network from February 2013 to March 2015.
Perkins’s CNP raised money for Goodman at an Oct. 18 event that brought in donations from GOP stalwarts such as former attorney general Edwin Meese and Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, according to Goodman’s campaign finance reports.
Both liberals and conservatives are wrestling with how to deal with sexual harassment and abuse allegations within their ranks. On Capitol Hill, a coalition of female lawmakers has pushed to reform a system heavily weighted toward protecting members accused of harassment, and the effort gained more steam last week with an allegation against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). The GOP is facing allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, now accused of inappropriate advances on underage girls when he was in his 30s.
Perkins told Goodman in late 2015 he should not run for office until he addressed his behavior.
“Going forward so soon, without some distance from your past behavior and a track record of recovery, carries great risk for you and for those who are supporting you,” he wrote on Dec. 18, 2015.
Perkins also said he was "obligated" to disclose the situation to CNP members who had supported Goodman's campaign. It is unclear whether he took such action.
The Post reached out to six CNP donors who contributed to Goodman’s campaign on or around the date of the Ritz-Carlton event. None responded to requests for comment.
Goodman was close to the CNP as managing director of the Conservative Action Project, a group formed by CNP to counter President Barack Obama’s agenda, including the Affordable Care Act.
As president of the Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and calls homosexuality “unnatural,” Perkins supports traditional values in U.S. politics and wields considerable clout in his political endorsements. His endorsement of Trump in July 2016 helped evangelicals overcome doubts about the GOP nominee.
The CNP is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 group founded in the early 1980s, and its membership has included prominent figures in the conservative movement such as Breitbart News chairman and former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and embattled Senate candidate Moore.
The young man involved in the 2015 hotel room episode said Goodman first approached him outside a Ritz-Carlton ballroom while urging young people to come to a party on Capitol Hill.
“One of the young guys didn’t want to go, and Wes really made fun of him and told him he ‘had a vagina’ and made sarcastic remarks about him being like a woman,” the young man wrote in a statement sent to Perkins on Oct. 25.
When the group eventually returned to the Ritz-Carlton, “Wes pushed me to come to his room,” and offered to let him share his bed, he wrote.
In his written statement, the young man said he awoke in the middle of the night to find Goodman’s hand “pulling down my zipper.” His pants had been unbuttoned and his zipper was down. He darted from the room at about 4 a.m. “I was shaken, dazed, confused and very upset,” he wrote.
Goodman gave a statement to Perkins saying he woke up at 8 a.m. and found the young man gone.
This account was rejected by some members of CNP’s inner circle.
In email correspondence, J. Keet Lewis, a member of CNP’s executive committee, expressed frustration with Goodman and asked that his campaign donation be refunded. Lewis referred questions about his comments to Perkins.
CNP Executive Director Bob McEwen, a former Ohio congressman who was included on the email chain, promised the stepfather on Oct. 22, 2015, "strong action is about to take place." McEwen did not respond to emails or telephone calls seeking comment.
Eight weeks later, Perkins officially suspended Goodman from the CNP, expressing “disappointment” that he had declared his candidacy for the statehouse.
The letter suggests Goodman had admitted to inappropriate behavior and was receiving counseling. Perkins cautioned him against pursuing a political career without addressing his previous actions.
“You have only begun the process of restoration,” Perkins wrote.
Goodman abruptly resigned from his seat in the Ohio House of Representatives several days after The Post contacted him about the Ritz-Carlton incident. Ohio House Speaker Clifford Rosenberger (R) said in a statement that Goodman had confirmed allegations of “inappropriate behavior” in his office.
“I sincerely regret that my actions and choices have kept me from serving my constituents and our state in a way that reflects the best ideals of public service,” Goodman said in a statement Wednesday morning.
The Washington Post is examining sexual assault and harassment in politics. To contact a reporter, email email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Robert Costa, Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.