The toxic legacy of Neil Goldschmidt

Dan Lucas_July 2012_BW

by Dan Lucas

Based on what a woman named Elizabeth told the Oregonian’s Margie Boulé, it was forty years ago this month that then Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt began sexually abusing her. She was 13 and Goldschmidt was 35. Elizabeth told Boulé that Goldschmidt began grooming behavior with her when she was just 7 or 8, and that Goldschmidt’s serial abuse and subsequent toxic relationship went on for another 14 years. Elizabeth died 4 years ago this month.

The abuse was brought to light in 2004 by Nigel Jaquiss at Willamette Week, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.

Elizabeth led a tortured and shattered life after the abuse. The once bright teen from an exclusive Portland neighborhood went on to struggle with drugs and alcohol for the rest of her life. One of her attempts at a clean start ended when she was kidnapped and brutally raped in Seattle.

Goldschmidt paid money that kept Elizabeth quiet. If her allegations were true, the allegations that Goldschmidt’s money kept her from talking about, then Goldschmidt had committed a felony.

There were also accusations of other victims. In a letter to the director of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST), former Goldschmidt speech writer Fred Leonhardt wrote “reporters in May 2004 asked me for the names of my colleagues in the governor’s office who had daughters, one of whom may have been another Goldschmidt victim, based on information from a credible source. And in September of that year, another Oregonian reporter asked me if I had any knowledge regarding several other accusations of alleged pedophilia by Goldschmidt.”

Leonhardt’s credibility has been established a number of times. A DPSST investigation into Goldschmidt’s former State Police bodyguard reported “Leonhardt signed an Affidavit attesting to his assertions. Leonhardt also successfully passed a polygraph based on his sworn statement.” The same report notes several examples where assertions of Leonhardt are corroborated by a variety of people, including state Sen. Ginny Burdick.

This should all be old news. It should be the sad story of a young girl whose life was destroyed by a powerful sexual predator, where the sexual predator was caught, arrested and put in jail. But that’s not what happened. Far from it.

Elizabeth’s life was in stark contrast to Oregon’s wunderkind Neil Goldschmidt, and to those who supported him. Goldschmidt went on to become the U.S. Transportation Secretary and then Oregon Governor. After leaving office, he worked as an executive at Nike and remained a powerful force in Oregon politics as a lobbyist, dealmaker and kingmaker. Goldschmidt was never arrested or charged — aided in part by a massive enabling network of some of Oregon’s most powerful people as well as by a 3-year statute of limitations (Oregon law has since improved, but there’s still room for improvement — some states have no statute of limitations for these types of crimes).

The Goldschmidt abuse story isn’t old news because there’s never been justice, and because many of his enablers have continued to profit from having gone along with it. For many politically powerful Oregonians, there’s not even any shame in the allegations of Goldschmidt’s serial sexual abuse. That’s why they thought it was OK to invite Goldschmidt to a memorial service in the state capitol in 2011 — eight months after Elizabeth died.

There were many people who profited from either looking the other way or from actively enabling Goldschmidt. In his brilliant 2011 Eugene Register-Guard column, Leonhardt wrote how “the best and the brightest looked the other way,” in order to benefit personally. Jaquiss documented some of that web of the “best and brightest” back in 2005.

There are people who were close to Goldschmidt, people who never spoke up, who never even supported those few who came forward when they could and should have. They remain in positions of power and influence in Oregon. Maybe someday they’ll be exposed — there are parts of the story that still haven’t come to light.

And not much has changed in Oregon — it could easily happen again. Some laws have improved a little, but the culture and the media that utterly failed Elizabeth and any other victims are still very much intact.

With the Neil Goldschmidt saga, it isn’t just the past that is a stain on Oregon — it’s also very much the present.

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