The FBI is in the initial phases of a “public corruption” investigation into allegations Spokane Mayor Jim West abused his office by offering jobs to young men he hoped to entice into sexual relationships, a senior Justice Department official said Tuesday.
FBI agents today are expected to interview Ryan Oelrich and another man, both 24, who said they were independently offered a position on the Human Rights Commission and City Hall jobs after online chats with a man who turned out to be West.
Oelrich, who is openly gay, told The Spokesman-Review on Monday that he also knows of two other young men who were approached by West in a gay chat room and later urged to apply for City Hall jobs.
“The FBI has opened what’s called a ‘preliminary inquiry’ to determine whether a full-blown investigation should occur,” said Thomas O. Rice, chief criminal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington.
“It’s almost certain a full investigation will occur,” said another source familiar with the case.
On a related front, former Spokane County Prosecutor Donald C. Brockett said he believes West’s activities should be reviewed in light of Washington state laws involving “official misconduct” and solicitation of minors for immoral purposes.
Brockett, who has called for an outside independent investigation, said neither the Spokane Police Department nor the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is in a position to conduct the state investigation.
At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Rice said he couldn’t discuss particulars of the federal investigation or where it might lead.
“We can assure the public it’s being looked at for possible violations of federal law,” Rice told The Spokesman-Review.
Rice said the “preliminary inquiry” by special agents of the FBI was begun “late last week.”
Justice Department guidelines allow him to confirm the existence of the investigation because it involves issues that are generating substantial public interest nationally through media accounts, he said.
“Normally, we can’t talk about investigations that are under way unless there has been some publicity or media attention that puts the matter in the public arena,” Rice said.
On Thursday, The Spokesman-Review reported that West has abused positions of public trust for a quarter-century – as a sheriff’s deputy, Boy Scout leader and politician. West has denied allegations that he sexually abused two boys in the late 1970s, but admitted having private online relationships in the past year through Gay.com.
After The Spokesman-Review stories appeared Thursday, top city officials, including City Attorney Mike Connelly and Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch moved to seize West’s computer and capture information on its hard drive.
It’s not known if city officials also have trapped or saved Internet usage logs that link West’s computer and the city’s computer domain or Internet on-ramp.
The FBI has jurisdiction to open an investigation under the fairly broad public corruption statutes. Sources described the potentially applicable statutes as follows:
Under one law, the Federal Program Funds section, the FBI can investigate matters involving cities or counties or any other governmental entity that receives $10,000 or more a year in federal funding.
With that law as the authorizing statute, federal investigators can then use wire fraud or mail fraud laws to charge or indict public officials. Use of computers and the Internet come under provisions of the wire fraud statute.
Another federal law that can be used in corruption of public office cases targets elected or appointed public figures who intend to defraud the citizens they serve of “honest services.” That law states it is Congress’ intention that public officials should not defraud the public trust.
Still another federal law touching on public corruption is the Hobbs Act, which prohibits extortion of anything having an effect on interstate commerce.
Brockett said he believes there also should be an investigation to see if state laws have been violated.
“Some independent body should be called in because Jim West has the ability to hire and fire (Police Chief) Roger Bragdon and I don’t think (Spokane County Sheriff) Mark Sterk would be independent because he used to work for the Police Department,” Brockett said.
The current county prosecutor, Steve Tucker, was not reached for comment, but he likely cannot freely discuss potential violations of state law because his office ultimately could be presented the case.
But Brockett, now retired, agreed to review transcripts between West and “Moto-Brock,” a fictional high school student created by a forensic computer consultant hired by the newspaper. Moto-Brock was offered an internship in the mayor’s office after the two met in a gay chat room and had online simulated sex using “instant messaging.”
Since publication of the Moto-Brock chats, Oelrich and another man who asked not to be identified, have come forward and said a nearly identical scenario happened to them when they met West online.
Brockett said he believes the state law outlawing “communication with a minor for immoral purposes” – a gross misdemeanor – is relevant to the conduct described in the Moto-Brock transcripts with West.
“Any time there’s sexual talk that’s predatory, in other words, that’s aimed at gaining an introduction or a meeting with somebody or just talking about sex, that is soliciting a minor for immoral purposes,” the former prosecutor said.
Under the state law, Brockett said, a crime occurred if the victim is “either a person under 18 or a person that the perpetrator believed was under 18.
“To me that seems to clearly cover fictional characters such as Moto-Brock,” the former prosecutor said.
Another state law that is implicated, he said, pertains to abuse of office or “official misconduct,” a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
“That law involves the use of public office, under color of law, to obtain a benefit,” Brockett said.
“The latest revelations about (City Hall) internships and some specific (government) jobs being offered to these two young men” may make state law applicable, he said.
“It obviously would be a matter of investigating this and putting a case together for presentation to a prosecutor to see if they felt it was sufficient,” he said.
The Washington State Patrol is qualified to do such investigations, he said, but the City Council or other city officials must request that assistance.