Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski screwed up earlier this week when he stalked out of a press conference rather than answer a TV reporter’s question about what he knew, and when he knew it, about Neil Goldschmidt‘s sexual involvement with his 14-year-old babysitter. (Oregon saw his walk-off – it was caught, on tape.) He seems to have recognized that, offering a little more response yesterday – essentially to say that arguments that he knew about the case but wrongly did nothing, were meritless. He says he didn’t know.
That is of course not ending the situation, notably since Portland talk show host Lars Larson has filed a formal complaint with the Oregon State Bar. Larson said Kulongoski had learned about it around 1991, by say of former Goldschmidt speechwriter Fred Leonhardt, who had been told by Bernie Giusto, once a driver for Goldschmidt and currently sheriff of Multnomah County. Giusto is under inquiry himself, in part for the same cause: withholding the knowledge.
The core point is put finely at Northwest Republican: “Why would you believe Fred Leonhardt over Kulongoski? Well a couple of reasons. First see the video from KGW. Second Leanhardt has taken and passed a polygraph backing up his story. And finally Kulongoski is a politician and closely tied with the child molester Goldschmidt. Remember folks, this is not just about Kulongoski hearing some rumor of a former governer. No he had heard about it and still… still decided he would appoint a child molester to the state board of education.”
And the Oregonian‘s Steve Duin blasted, “It is Ted Kulongoski’s good fortune, apparently, that ‘moral fitness’ and ‘honesty’ are standards for police officers, not governors.”
All of this certainly has a sleazy ring to it. But, leaving aside the issues of who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, it looks a little different when you untangle the pieces and put them in perspective. And it raises the question of what were Kulongoski’s – and our – obligations.
Goldschmidt was mayor of Portland in the mid-70s when he and his 14-year-old babysitter had a series of sexual encounters over about three years. (He might have been charged then for statutory rape, but the period allowable for charging has long expired.)
For 29 years this remained concealed from the public; only a few people knew. Willamette Week, which won a Pulitzer for its investigation of the case, wrote that “although many friends of the victim knew about the crime, few of Goldschmidt’s aides, as mayor or as governor, did.” One such, the article said, was a private investigator named Robert K. Burtchaell, who became involved and learned about the situation when Goldschmidt asked him to “handle” the young woman’s complaints, evidently at some point in the early 80s. (Goldschmidt’s involvement with Burtchaell was a whole other matter.)
Willamette’s story didn’t mention either Giusto or Leonhardt, but the Oregonian picked up the thread with its report. It reported that Giusto, who as an Oregon State Police officer served for a time as Goldschmidt’s driver (this would have been in the 1988-90 period), “was aware of a potential legal settlement between Goldschmidt and his victim around 1994 and that he may have talked with Leonhardt about it.” Earlier (the paper reported), as early as 1989, he said he “may have discussed vague rumors” with Leonhardt.
Considering that neither Goldschmidt nor others directly involved would seem to have much reason to confide the mass of gory details to a driver, who also happened to be a cop, you get the sense here that Giusto may have been putting together bits and scraps. He did (according to Leonhardt) tell Leonhardt some details, but Leonhardt “didn’t ask how Giusto learned about this” – so never got a sense of whether the information was solid or gaseous. At the time, it was unsubstantiated; Leonhardt acknowledged that he was then highly skeptical of any of it. Giusto said “he did not remember the breakfast but acknowledged it was possible that the two drove together to Salem and discussed rumors about Goldschmidt and extramarital relationships.” (Note again the use of the word “rumors.”) Leonhardt said he talked about it with other staffers in the governor’s office, and “Finally, we convinced ourselves that it wasn’t true.” The Oregonian said it had substantiation that Leonhardt was talking with other people about this subject toward the end of Goldschmidt’s term, which ended at the beginning of 1991.
The case took a turn in 1989 and early 1990, when for a time a seal court record in Washington state that described the 1970’s child abuse threatened to become unsealed; Goldschmidt, evidently in response (and also following up on a divorce), announced he would not run for a second term as governor.
Remember that by this point, more than a dozen years had passed since the abuse. Rumors were floating, but no evidence. The woman had made no public allegations, and neither were there any confessions, publicly or privately.
Blogger Kari Chisholm recalls the scene from 1990, when Goldschmidt delivered his stunning won’t-run announcement: “There were LOTS of rumors going around. I was a high school senior – interested in politics, doing a little volunteering here and there – and even I heard lots of rumors. Crazy, ridiculous rumors. There was the one about how Neil had a gay lover. There was the one about how Neil had an illegitimate African-American child. There was the one about a hooker in Canada. And there were a dozen variations on the plain ol’ he-had-an-affair rumor. There were so many damn rumors that it was just plain absurd. It seemed, at the time, like everyone had an explanation why the good-looking governor got divorced and gave up his political career. After all, it seemed pretty obvious that it had something to do with infidelity.”
Indeed: A powerhouse governor’s rapid-fire divorce, no second term and dropping out of visible public life, all at once – it meant something, all right, but no satisfying explanations were available. What did it mean? Everyone had a theory; few had facts. Much of what people thought they knew, conflicted.
There was a lot of talk, and the pieces of information Leonhardt had developed probably circled around in upper levels of Democratic politics. Is it credible that some of it made its way to Kulongoski around 1991 (which would be after Goldschmidt had left office and moved to private life)? Credible, yes. Leonhardt says it did – though he described the whole thing at the time as “rumor” not as “fact” (and we should bear in mind that Leonhardt has some personal animus against Kulongoski). The governor says no, it didn’t, at all.
One obvious question is, how can the truth of that matter ever be conclusively established now? Realistically, unless someone produces a tape recording, it probably can’t.
But the other question is, if we assume for the moment that Kulongoski did hear what Leonhardt says he had to say, what exactly was he supposed to do?
According to Willamette Week and Oregonian research, presumably somewhere around two dozen or more people had heard the abuse stories by the time Kulongoski is supposed to have; why did none of them move on it? Some had self-interest at stake, but for others, the simple absence of hard evidence was likely a problem (and as an attorney, Kulongoski would have well understood that). Where was the hard evidence of these events that by then were more than a dozen years old? Moreover – though not exculpatory of what happened in the 70s – there seemed to be no current risk to anyone, no rumor or any other indication that Goldschmidt’s babysitter proclivities had survived disco. Against all that weigh the problem of making a false accusation, in this case one of the most awful accusations a person can make. If you know it’s true, it should be made; but if you’ve got no evidence, nothing more than third-hand rumor, and the (now adult) victim involved isn’t stepping forward or apparently willing to say word one about it . . .
Then what exactly should be the responsibility, the obligation, of a person who, circa 1991, hears unsubstantiated rumors about a sex abuse case more than a decade old?
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