Friday, June 11, 2010
Jim West: surfing wipeout
Some eight years before voters kicked him out of office for ethical issues, James West weathered a criminal charge to keep serving in the Washington state senate. In 1998, the Building Industry Association of Washington ran in ad in a local newspaper suggesting that West wasn't supportive of education. In response, West phoned up the lobbying group's leader, Tom McCabe, and left a message seething, "McCabe, you son of a bitch, you better get me 'cause if you don't you're dead."
When the message was made public, West tried to argue that he meant McCabe would be politically deceased, not physically killed. McCabe brought a criminal harassment complaint against the legislator, and West ended up paying $500 to an Olympia charity. He also paid $250 in court costs, served nine months of probation, and apologized to McCabe and the Spokane community in general. It wasn't the first time West's temper got the better of him. In 1995, he swore at fellow senator John Moyer and his staff after Moyer implied that West didn't support a $2 million appropriation for Spokane's Cheney Cowles Museum. West kicked Moyer's office door during the outburst, and apologized for that incident as well.
West was born in March of 1951 in Salem, Oregon, and attended school in Spokane. After going to the University of Nevada and its Reserve Officer Training Corps, he served in the Army as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. He moved to North Carolina to work as an assistant manager in a retail scuba diving store, returning to Spokane in 1974 to pursue a career in law enforcement. He joined the Medical Lake Police Department as a patrolman in 1975, transferring to the Spokane County Sheriff's Office at the end of the year. He opened his own scuba shop in 1977, graduating from Gonzaga University the next year with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He was later sued for wrongful death when a student on a dive he was supervising died, but the case was thrown out since the student had signed a consent form.
In 1979, West became the sergeant-at-arms for the Washington house of representatives. The next year, he went into politics himself, becoming the youngest member of the Spokane City Council at age 28. He won an election to fill a vacancy in the house of representatives in 1982, and four years later he moved over to the senate. He spent 20 years in the state legislature, but made a few efforts to get out. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1996 and mayor of Spokane in 2000. West gained a good deal of influence in the legislature. He successfully proposed extending the state's motorcycle helmet law to all riders, not just juveniles, and helped to create the state's Department of Health. Earning more mockery was a 1990 suggestion that teenage sex be criminalized. One prosecutor jokingly suggested that a bill preventing legislators from procreating with each other would be more beneficial.
In 2003, West was elected mayor of Spokane over Democratic candidate and journalist Tom Grant. In April, West had announced that he had colon cancer. After his victory, he was frequently absent due to surgical procedures. While in office, he managed to pull together support for a $117 million bond issue to repair the city's streets, despite a recent defeat of a similar measure. He also helped get the city out of a failed venture to create a parking garage, advocated a downtown wireless network, worked to prevent the closure of Fairchild Air Force Base, and cut down on city jobs to trim the budget.
Two years after his election, the Spokane Spokesman-Review assessed the mayor as having a fairly successful political record; it also had him on the ropes, fighting calls to resign. An 18-year-old man told the paper that he met the mayor through Gay.com, a homosexual online dating site. His date confided that he was the mayor of Spokane and, after a dinner date, the two had consensual sex. To test the claim, the Spokesman-Review hired a forensic computer expert to set up a sting. Using a profile to pose as an 18-year-old man, reporters chatted with the mayor online, where he identified himself as Cobra82nd and RightBi-Guy. “Remember, I’m very closeted. No one knows I like guys. Except the few guys I’ve been with and highly trusted,” West said in recorded instant message conversations. He offered the nonexistent teen a few perks to try to get him to city hall, including an internship, trips to sporting events, and autographed sports memorabilia.
On May 5, 2005, the newspaper published a major report detailing their findings. Prominently featured were accusations by two men who said West molested them when he was a sheriff's deputy and they were boys. They accused another man, David Hahn, of the same conduct. Hahn also served as a deputy, but didn't have anything to say for himself; similar accusations had already come up over two decades before the scandal, and Hahn had committed suicide with his service weapon in 1981. West knew he was caught, and admitted to reporters that he had been looking for men on Gay.com for a year. "I can't tell you why I go there, to tell you the truth...curiosity, confused, whatever, I don't know," he said of his online dating. Though he did not admit that he was gay, West didn't shy away from a suggestion that he was bisexual. He firmly denied that he ever abused any children, and the accusers' claims were compromised somewhat by the fact that they were both convicted felons and drug addicts.
Within a couple of days, two more men came forward with allegations that West sexually abused or made passes at them in 1980 and 2001. Some politicians said that West's sexuality was something of an open secret, with his proposal to a woman on the floor of the legislature and subsequent five-year marriage working as a ruse to combat such allegations. Past opponents had never used the issue for political fodder, feeling it didn't relate to the political issues at hand. The publicized charges crossed into ethical territory, however; a city councilwoman said that West had admitted to her that he used city computers for the chat rooms and masturbated to them in his City Hall office. When the Spokesman-Review printed this charge, West called them up to deny her account. "I'm being destroyed because I am a gay man, which is fine. I've been in public life, I can accept that. Because I am a gay man, because of this double life, it has been hell," he said. "It's OK to destroy me, but stop destroying this city." The mayor also complained that the newspaper had "brutally outed" him.
West's plight didn't earn him much sympathy in the gay community, as the scandal also exposed him as something of a hypocrite. While in the legislature, he was a conservative Republican well-known for his focus on moral issues. Besides his proposal to criminalize teen sex, he was also opposed to the distribution of information packets on AIDS and was strongly against any measure related to gay rights. He co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill in 1986 to bar homosexuals from employment in schools, day care centers, and some state agencies; the bill was a retaliatory measure against a gubernatorial Christmas order in 1985 prohibiting such discriminatory practices in state hiring. He supported the Defense of Marriage Act to ban gay marriage, and in 1998 Washington became the 27th state to adopt the measure. West explained that he wasn't necessarily opposed to gay rights, but didn't want to create "special classes" for any minority.
One of the more immediate effects of the scandal was West's removal from affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America. He had been volunteering for the organization for over 30 years, but chose to resign from the Inland Northwest Council of the Boy Scouts and the board of directors for Morning Star Boys Ranch, which serves 18-year-olds from troubled backgrounds. One official with the Boy Scouts bluntly said that West would have been kicked off the council if he hadn't resigned, due to the organization's stance against homosexuality and immediate revocation of such offices if there are allegations of sexual abuse. West announced that he would take a leave of absence to prepare a defense, and left deputy mayor Jack Lynch in charge. "Finally, I hope that you and the people will reserve judgment on me until the newspaper is done persecuting me and allow me to have the fair opportunity to respond to each of the allegations in due time," he concluded as he left office. By the end of the month, however, West was back in City Hall. Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began looking into his computer records.
West's colleagues weren't exactly happy to see him return, and the calls for his resignation increased. Business leaders said such an action would limit any potential damage to tourism and the city's image. The city council tied 3-3 in a vote to ask him to take administrative leave, failing only because the members opposed wanted a stronger motion. Not long after, in June, the council voted unanimously to recommend his resignation, a first step toward possible impeachment. A few days later, West made an apology but vowed to stay in office. He said former Democratic President Bill Clinton and former Democratic Washington Governor Mike Lowry both survived sex scandals. "I did things in my private life that I should have known if they became public would cause embarrassment…everyone makes mistakes. I do, too," he said, adding that the ordeal "has been an embarrassing, humiliating and painful experience. But it doesn't need to distract this city." The Lowry example only gave more ammunition to those who saw West as a hypocrite. Investigators found insufficient evidence to prosecute Lowry after a female aide accused him of sexual harassment, but the governor chose not to run for re-election in 1996; at the time, West sent a letter to the speaker of the state house of representatives demanding a swift impeachment process. There was some speculation that West was reluctant to give up the office due to its lucrative $136,000-a-year salary, and even more so for the health benefits covering his cancer treatments.
West also fought an ongoing recall effort against him, which charged that the offers made to the phony 18-year-old represented "an improper exercise of an official duty." His lawyers argued that the recall lacked legal justification and that the judge who first heard the case got personally involved by rewriting the recall proposition. The state supreme court upheld the recall effort, saying the recall process could proceed if it gathered enough signatures. It eventually collected 17,121, a healthy margin greater than the minimum amount at 12,567. A recall election was scheduled for December.
Two months prior to the election, it was determined that West used city computers to browse gay profiles for men in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., when he went to the cities on business. Ironically, one of the people he met in D.C. was Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who would get caught up in his own gay sex scandal in 2007. Around the same month, West said he was contemplating filing suit against the Spokesman-Review based on allegations that they broke federal and state laws regarding privacy issues and computer trespass. "Basically, the reason I'm bringing a lawsuit is, nobody, public or private, should go through what the Spokesman-Review has done to me as far as invading my privacy," he said. The suit never materialized.
In late November, a private investigator hired by the city council reported that West broke the law by hiring a man for the city's Human Rights Commission and then pursuing him sexually, and broke city policy as well by browsing online for gay men. As the countdown to the recall proceeded, West fought to keep his computer records private. He argued that some of the images from Gay.com were automatically downloaded to his computer's browser cache. Only a few days before the recall election, the findings were publicized. They showed that in three months, West spent hours on the site; 6,626 images were downloaded from Gay.com, and some of them were explicit.
Sixty-five percent of the voters agreed to kick West out of office. Dennis Hession, the city council president, took over the mayor's duties. "There have been a lot of lessons out of this, to tell you the truth," West said. "It's helped me straighten out my personal life." Curiously, West said that he stood by his previous anti-homosexual stances, with the exception of the one to prevent homosexuals from working in schools and other institutions involving children. Gay and lesbian groups saw the scandal a different way, saying it had the effect of encouraging openness rather than closeted lives. West said he was resigned to the vote, but the next day he sniped, "I think there are people in this community that could do a better job [as mayor] than anyone on the city council."
In February of 2006, the FBI wrapped up their probe and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to file any charges against West. Their investigation looked only into fraud related to whether he offered jobs or internships in exchange for sex. State charges remained an option, with the city's investigation alleging a violation of a state law that officials could not use municipal computers for personal use. Local prosecution got bogged down, with the county prosecutor having a conflict of interest due to a past $50 contribution to West's campaign, the local police unwilling to proceed, and the city officials not keen on pressing the issue. West ultimately ended up getting a job selling advertisements for a Seattle magazine, and chatted with a radio station about a possible talk show.
West said he wasn't ruling out another bid for office, but his recall came when he had less than a year to live. His cancer spread to his liver while in office, and he died in July of 2006 after complications from surgery.
Sources: "Senator Settles Charge Filed By Lobbyist" in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News on Nov. 10 1998, "Race To Lead Spokane" in the Spokesman-Review on Oct. 19 2003, "West Tied To Sex Abuse In '70s, Using Office To Lure Young Men" in the Spokesman-Review on May 5 2005, "West's Public Policy Conflicts With Private Life" in the Spokesman-Review on May 5 2005, "Online Relationships" in the Spokesman-Review on May 5 2005, "West Has Brought New Tone, New Success To City Hall" in the Spokesman-Review on May 5 2005, "After Spokane Childhood, West Leads Life Of Service" in the Spokesman-Review on May 5 2005, "Spokane Mayor's Accusers Are Felons" in the Ellensburg Daily Record on May 6 2005, "West Resigns From Scout Post, Boys Ranch Board" in the Spokesman-Review on May 6 2005, "West Faces New Allegations" in the Spokesman-Review on May 7 2005, "Rodgers: West Used City Office" in the Spokesman-Review on May 8 2005, "West Denies Having Online Sex In Office" in the Spokesman-Review on May 8 2005, "Mayor Says Sex Act Happened At Home" in the Spokesman-Review on May 9 2005, "Mayor To Take Leave" in the Spokesman-Review on May 10 2005, "Spokane Mayor Urged To Resign" in the Eugene Register-Guard on May 15 2005, "Council Split On West" in the Spokesman-Review on May 16 2005, "It's 'Awkward' With Mayor Back At City Hall" in the Spokesman-Review on May 20 2005, "Spokane Finds It Tough To Get Rid Of Mayor" in the Ellensburg Daily Record on May 28 2005, "Council Wants West Out" in the Spokesman-Review on Jun. 1 2005, "'Everyone Makes Mistakes'" in the Spokesman-Review on Jun. 4 2005, "West Urged Quick Justice In Lowry Sex Scandal" in the Spokesman-Review on Jul. 14 2005, "West Recall Advances" in the Spokesman-Review on Aug. 25 2005, "17,121 Urge West Recall Vote" in the Spokesman-Review on Sep. 22 2005, "West Accessed Sex Sites On Trips" in the Spokesman-Review on Oct. 15 2005, "Spokane Mayor May Sue Paper For Privacy Invasion" in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Oct. 22 2005, "West Says Downloads Automatic" in the Spokesman-Review on Nov. 16 2005, "Spokane Mayor's Offer Broke Law, Report Says" in the Seattle Times on Nov. 21 2005, "West Spent Hours Online At Gay.com" in the Spokesman-Review on Dec. 3 2005, "Voters Recall West" in the Spokesman-Review on Dec. 7 2005, "Spokane Mayor, Caught In Gay Sex Sting, Is Ousted In Vote That May Advance Gay Rights" in the New York Times on Dec. 8 2005, "West Challenges Successor" in the Spokesman-Review on Dec. 8 2005, "No Federal Charges" in the Spokesman-Review on Feb. 17 2006, "No Charges After Investigation Of Ex-Mayor's Online Scandal" in the New York Times on Feb. 17 2006, "Prosecution Of Former Spokane Mayor Appears Unlikely" in the Seattle Times on Mar. 22 2006, "Former Spokane Mayor Jim West Dies" in the Seattle Times on Jul. 22 2006