West urged swift justice in Lowry sex scandal
A powerful politician embroiled in a sex scandal resists calls for his forcible removal from office.
Those leading the charge want swift action, saying “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Sound like the drama gripping Spokane City Hall these days?
It’s actually a 1995 chapter in state politics, when then-Gov. Mike Lowry was battling an impeachment drive being waged by a state senator who would later become Spokane’s mayor – Jim West.
Now, as West’s lawyers urge the Washington Supreme Court in a decision expected today to go slow on his recall campaign, West’s comments and actions while serving in the state Senate during the Lowry scandal appear to contradict his own positions today.
A decade ago, then-Sen. West urged the speedy removal of Gov. Lowry, who was accused of sexually harassing a female aide. Without the support of his Republican caucus, West single-handedly drafted an impeachment resolution for the state House to consider, arguing that Republicans shouldn’t wait until the 1996 election to challenge Lowry.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” West said in a March 29, 1995 letter to Rep. Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee, the speaker of the House. Washington’s Constitution calls for impeachment to be initiated in the House of Representatives.
West’s hand-written notes and other documents on the Lowry flap were found recently in a thick file among West’s official papers in the Washington State Archives in Olympia.
West wanted a quick impeachment of Lowry, writing in his notes that if the governor “worked for any other employer he would have been fired.”
West repeated that assertion in his letter to Ballard.
“Impeaching a Governor is serious business, but the Governor should not be held to any lower standard than anyone else in our society. Governors cannot and should not flaunt the law,” West said. “If only half of the allegations are indeed true and this were anyone but the Governor there would be no questions asked, he would be summarily fired,” West added.
West’s critics said his positions then and now are inconsistent.
“Isn’t it funny how the things you say never go away?” said Spokane City Council President Dennis Hession, asked for comment Wednesday on West’s call for impeaching Lowry.
West has said he’ll go quietly from City Hall if recalled, but is fighting before the state Supreme Court for every legal protection the recall statute provides, Hession said.
“I believe the community is struggling with having this situation unresolved,” Hession said. That’s why the City Council last week called for a speedy resolution, he added.
If any other politician were in West’s situation, he’d be calling for that politician to step down, said Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, Senate majority leader in the most recent legislative session. “I believe Jim’s history suggests that,” Brown said.
Shannon Sullivan, the Spokane mother who drafted and defended in court the recall petition that could oust West from City Hall for offering public positions to young men in exchange for sexual favors, criticized his “flip-flops” on Lowry and his own recall.
“He was the first to jump on Lowry, but he’s defending himself to the hilt. What does that say about his character?” Sullivan said. “I just want him to resign so I can go about my life,” she added.
West attorney Bill Etter didn’t return a call Wednesday seeking comment.
In a series of stories starting May 5, The Spokesman-Review reported that West, while Spokane’s mayor, sought dates with young men on Gay.com, offering sports memorabilia, trips and City Hall positions to some of them.
The newspaper also reported that West, while in the Legislature, sponsored bills that would have made sex between teenagers a misdemeanor and would have barred gays and lesbians from many public-sector jobs, including teaching.
One 18-year-old, whom West approached online and eventually offered an internship in his City Hall office, was actually a forensic investigator hired by the newspaper to verify West’s identity and conduct on Gay.com. West approached the teenager online, initiated conversations about sex and sent him an internship application from City Hall.
West also offered a position on the city’s Human Rights Commission in April 2004 to Ryan Oelrich, an openly gay 24-year-old. Oelrich said he quit the commission in January after West kept asking him for dates and offered him $300 to swim naked with the mayor in a swimming pool.
The FBI is conducting a preliminary inquiry into whether West’s conduct constitutes public corruption. Oelrich, reached Wednesday, confirmed that the FBI interviewed him in May, shortly after The Spokesman-Review stories were published.
In a June 3 press conference arranged by his lawyers a month into the abuse of power scandal, West said he’d been wrong to call for Lowry’s impeachment in his earlier, “angry days” in the Legislature. He singled out Lowry and ex-President Bill Clinton, Democrats who survived sex scandals and went on to perform well in their final years in office. He also apologized for embarrassing the city, saying “I’ve disappointed a lot of people.”
West also said he doesn’t expect a recall to succeed. “I was chosen by the voters of Spokane. … I don’t think the will of the voters should be overturned lightly. In a recall, if the voters say Jim West should go, Jim West will gracefully go. But I intend to serve out my term,” he said.
The Lowry episode was investigated in 1995 by Seattle attorney Mary Alice Theiler. She concluded that there was insufficient legal evidence that Lowry’s behavior toward press aide Susanne Albright met the definition of sexual harassment.
But Lowry’s overly-familiar behavior was offensive, made his staff uncomfortable and “he must change,” Theiler concluded. Lowry apologized to his staff. He didn’t seek re-election in 1996.
West got short shrift from his own party for his impeachment call. He was rebuked by the GOP leadership in a closed-door meeting for making the unilateral proposal, according to news accounts at the time.
House Speaker Ballard said he wasn’t going to be distracted during the legislative session. West criticized Ballard’s reluctance, saying “the leadership of the House aren’t red-meat-eaters.”
West said the issue of Lowry’s conduct was “above politics.”
“I’m not a feminist or any kind of fighter for women’s rights, but what he did was wrong and can’t go without response,” West told The Spokesman-Review at the time.
West also requested a legal brief on impeachment from Gordon Golob, a Republican lawyer for the Senate, his Senate papers archived in Olympia show.
It describes “malfeasance” – one of the impeachable offenses – as “any wrongful conduct that affects, interrupts or interferes with the performance of official duties.”
Golob’s memo also says that impeachment procedures had only been brought once in Washington – in 1909, when the House voted 90-0 to impeach Insurance Commissioner John H. Schively for his alleged involvement in an insurance kick-back scheme. The state Senate, after a 60-day trial, failed to convict Schively.
Golob concluded that Lowry’s conduct “would appear to constitute several acts of sexual harassment.”
“Certainly any time a supervisor approaches a subordinate with sexual innuendo, remarks regarding sexuality and blatant acts of touching with requests for further meetings/dates … the activity has risen to the level of harassment,” Golob said.