Congressman's Woes Trouble Many in GOP

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody could quite believe it when Wes Cooley walked up to the podium at a recent regional Republican convention and prepared to open fire.

Cooley, a former Orange County pharmaceutical executive, not so long ago would have been a crowd favorite. A staunch conservative who seemed well-suited for the eastern Oregon congressional district that swept him into office in 1994's Republican tide, he has proved to be an activist House freshman who helped protect grazing rights for ranchers and fought to aid the region's dying lumber mills.

But all that was before he crossed into politician hell, a frontier he hasn't been able to step out of since a series of disclosures called into question much of what he has long said about himself, including the details of his Korean War service, what college degrees he earned, what fraternity he pledged to, even when he married his wife.

Many of his fellow Republicans clearly are dismayed about Cooley's unraveling resume.

Though he was unopposed for renomination in Oregon's May primary, a majority of those who voted left their ballots unmarked or wrote in another name. Since then, nearly every Republican county central committee in eastern Oregon has urged Cooley to remove himself from the fall ballot. And one frustrated GOP leader has announced a third-party bid for the House seat.

The unusual piece of political theater unfolding in this sprawling rural district is part of a larger scenario: The spectacle surrounding Cooley could cost the GOP a normally safe seat at a time when the party is struggling to hold on to its House majority.

So come the recent convention, here was Cooley, striding up to the podium to face local Republican activists, many of whom were hoping he would simply go away.

"I am a candidate, I am going to be a candidate, and I am going to run for reelection," he said. "The only thing that could change that is if something drastically happens to me personally or if something really goes haywire."

He then proceeded to unload on the media, environmentalists, the GOP establishment and a variety of other unspecified opponents.

"There is a movement to make this country part of the United Nations, to make this a one-world country, and the press has joined into this effort, to promote socialism and nationalism," Cooley declared as the audience fell silent. "There are only a few people in Congress who are willing to stand up and say, 'No way,' while we're there. And we're getting beat up for it, I'll tell you."

For Greg Walden, Cooley's campaign manager in 1994, an air of unreality marked the moment.

"It was a 'Twilight Zone' speech. It was bizarre," said Walden, a state senator from Medford. "You've got to understand the scene: These are the party faithful, the hard-core conservatives. These are the people that worked their tails off to get him elected--and he's on the attack. He was defiant. People were astonished, amazed, appalled, stunned."

Walden was spurred to action; he began a drive to create a party within the district and run as its House candidate. The move won the blessing of Cooley's popular Republican predecessor, who retired from office two years ago.

Cooley, 64, grew up in Southern California and graduated from USC after serving a stint in the Army Special Forces. He worked several years for Allergan Inc., a pharmaceutical firm, and later joined Irvine-based ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc. before moving to a small town near Bend in the 1980s and starting his own vitamin sales business.

In California, his only foray into politics was an unsuccessful bid for the Placentia City Council in the early 1960s; in Oregon, he was elected to the state Senate in 1992 before capturing the open U.S. House seat two years later.

His troubles started, ironically enough, this past April Fools' Day. Cooley picked up a fictional item from an April Fool edition of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, and presented it as fact to a meeting of timber industry executives in Washington state. A reporter for Portland's Oregonian newspaper stopped the congressman to ask him about it.

Cooley reacted angrily, thrusting a finger in the reporter's face and bellowing: "The only thing that is saving you from getting your nose busted is that you're a lady."

Cooley later apologized but denied threatening to bust the woman's nose. "I never talked about punching anybody. That is absolutely false. I said: 'You should be whipped. And if you were not a lady, I'd whip you.' "

After that, the Oregonian and the Bulletin newspaper in Bend published several stories that raised doubts about the congressman's claim that he served in Korea with the Special Forces during the war in that country, that he pledged to Phi Beta Kappa during his college years and that he obtained a master's degree and a law degree in addition to his bachelor's degree from USC.

Cooley has conceded the points about his college record; he continues to insist his military service in Korea is not listed in records, some of which were destroyed by fire, because it was classified.

Oregon state officials are investigating whether Cooley lied about his war service on official voter pamphlets, which would be a felony. Another investigation focuses on when Cooley married his second wife, who apparently continued to collect about $800 a month in federal veterans benefits on behalf of her deceased first husband for at least seven years after she and Cooley were claiming--on a loan application, a voter registration card and to many acquaintances--to be married.

Cooley now says they didn't get married until 1993; he says the couple notified the government and returned all veterans' benefits sent after that date.

Cooley, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has insisted he never did anything illegal and is being judged on minor errors that may have occurred years ago.

"I want to tell you that I've made mistakes, and I'm not going to tell you I didn't," he said at the recent GOP gathering. ". . . If you want to criticize my record, go ahead. But don't go back 40 some odd years and start knocking on me."

Throughout the drama, associates from Cooley's past have emerged to give their versions of disputed events. They have included an Army sergeant who says he is sure Cooley didn't go to Korea, and the congressman's ex-wife, Beverly Charbonneau of Fullerton, who says Cooley left her for a co-worker and owes her $80,000.

"Lying is his way of life. . . . He either lies or exaggerates to the point where I never knew what was up," Charbonneau said.

She recalled Cooley's run for the Placentia City Council, saying her then-husband stood up at a forum and claimed to have inside FBI information about the mayor and a number of his opponents. "It was total bluff, a total lie, and I just wanted to slink out of there."

At a news conference last month, Cooley unveiled documentation that he claimed cleared him of the charges concerning his military record, wedding date and a disputed tax exemption he took for a former employee. But Oregon GOP leaders say the documentation really didn't prove anything.

"On a lot of these things, he still has not given us any evidence that in fact he's telling the truth. So people are tending not to believe him at this point," said Tim Knopp, chairman of the Republican central committee in Bend and a Cooley campaign worker in 1994.

"I worked full time for him as a volunteer. I drove 5,000 miles in the district for him . . . delivering signs and materials to all his county coordinators, but for me, I've lost trust in the man."

But Cooley is not without his supporters.

"He's done an excellent job, and people are behind him 100%, contrary to all the baloney you hear," said George Shaw, a retiree in Bend who, like Cooley, moved to Oregon from California. "He may have had his little peccadilloes going, his little white lies, but Cooley . . . represents the real people of eastern Oregon."

Tom Butler, a county commissioner from Ontario, Ore., said he has done his own analysis of Cooley's purported untruths and found no substance to them.

"In the beginning, I had the news stories spread out in front of me, and every one of them were crying, 'Crucify him, crucify him.' And I guess I was right there with them."

But he said his review of Cooley's documentation convinced him the charges lacked substance.

"I don't know of any easier way to put it than that he has been crucified by a liberal press, as far as I'm concerned," Butler said. "And I was absolutely ashamed that I had believed them."

Michael Dugan, a county prosecutor and the House district's Democratic candidate, has avoided entering the Cooley fracas.

While he emphasizes his own conservative credentials, Dugan reminds voters that Oregon, fresh from former Sen. Bob Packwood's resignation following sexual-harassment claims and the scandal involving figure skater Tonya Harding, has had its share of negative national headlines. "We don't like to be made fun of, we don't like to be lied to, and we don't like to be laughed at," he said.

Meanwhile, the frustration mounts inside Oregon's Republican establishment and among the handful of party members who believe they could win the seat if only Cooley would step aside.

"There's no question that Wes Cooley holds all the cards," Knopp said. "People are trying to just talk common sense to him and try to get him to realize the seriousness of the situation and the unlikely prospects for his victory."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°