Mayor Under Fire, but Paper Feeling Heat Too

Times Staff Writer

In this normally placid city, which some call “the world’s biggest small town” and where a road sign proclaims there have been no traffic fatalities this year, the shocking questions about the mayor and the local newspaper just keep coming.

Is Mayor James E. West a pedophile, as two men alleged to the paper last week? Did he offer young men jobs and perks in a bid to have sex with them? Is he a hypocrite, announcing he is homosexual after a 25-year public career -- including a stint as the state Senate majority leader -- in which he opposed gay rights? Should he resign? Or be recalled?

And was the Spokane Spokesman-Review justified in lying in a bid to get at the truth?

The paper hired a forensic computer expert to pose as a 17-year-old boy who conducted an online relationship with the mayor. West has admitted to using screen aliases such as RightBi-Guy and Cobra82nd, an apparent reference to his service as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.


Sordid details emerge every day in the newspaper’s ongoing investigative report on the Republican mayor’s alleged misuse of office.

Did he once tell a councilwoman that he had masturbated in his City Hall office? Did he offer a young man, whom he later appointed to the city’s human rights commission, $300 to go swimming naked with him?

The scandal has left residents in this city of 200,000 people using words like disgusted, embarrassed and creeped out. It has created “a civic freak show,” as columnist Doug Clark wrote in the Spokesman-Review on Tuesday. The mayor’s troubles even got a mention by Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

Many want the 54-year-old mayor, once promoted as a potential candidate for governor or U.S. senator, gone -- and not just from office.

“He should get on his horse and ride far, far away into the sunset,” said John Kallas, 53, who once served with West as a sheriff’s deputy and is now the fishing department manager at the White Elephant, a sporting goods store. “His gig is up.”

West informed the City Council on Monday that he was taking a leave of absence, and he expressed his “hope that you and the people will reserve judgment on me until the newspaper is done persecuting me and allow me to have the fair opportunity to respond to each of the allegations in due time.”

The FBI said Wednesday that it had opened a preliminary inquiry into a possible public corruption case involving West. A variety of civic leaders, including two former mayors, have called on West to resign.

Certainly, some are willing to reserve judgment on the most serious allegations -- made by two men with criminal drug records -- that West molested them in the 1970s and early ‘80s when he was in law enforcement and serving as a Boy Scout leader.

The mayor has denied their accusations.

But there is a widespread sense that West is a hypocrite. Until last week, he was a closeted gay man who once sponsored legislation to bar gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.

He also voted to prohibit the state from distributing pamphlets telling people how to protect themselves against AIDS, denouncing the information as “something people go buy at dirty bookstores.”

Joan Overfield, a Spokane native and author of 26 romance novels, said she was appalled that the mayor contended he was being “destroyed because I am a gay man,” as he told the Spokesman-Review’s editor in a phone call he made at 6:37 Sunday morning.

Overfield said West bid’s for gay martyrdom was absurd.

“It’s like a member of the Ku Klux Klan saying, ‘Ooh, I’m a victim of discrimination because I’m wearing a white sheet,’ ” she said, shaking her head.

As far as she and many others are concerned, the issue is not whether West is gay, but whether he is a pedophile, and whether he misused his office in a bid to lure young men.

Since news of the scandal broke, the mayor has at turns been contrite and defiant, telling the paper’s editor in his phone call about the “hell” of his “double life” as a gay man. In 1990, West proposed to a woman from the floor of the state Senate; he was married and divorced after five years.

Despite supposedly being on leave, he sent an e-mail this week to a local task force on race relations -- using his city e-mail address -- posing a series of questions about its antidiscrimination work.

“Does that include people who have an internal struggle with who they are sexually and are searching for a way to come out and are torn by a desire to be out and a fear of what happens if they are?” the mayor wrote.

He added: “Should we not stand up for justice -- even for those we despise? Because if we don’t, who will stand up for us?”

Although there seems to be much sentiment against West, there is a far more complicated debate going on in town about a decision by the Spokesman-Review to use a fictitious online persona on the website to engage in sexual banter with the mayor.

Editor Steven A. Smith said in a “note to our readers” last week that the newspaper had engaged in the ruse to make absolutely sure that the young men it had interviewed for its investigation were describing correct screen names for the mayor.

“Under ordinary circumstances,” Smith wrote, “the newspaper would not use a fictional scenario in pursuit of a news story. But the seriousness of the allegations and the need for specific computer forensic skills overrode our general reluctance.”

Smith said in a telephone interview that the possibility the mayor was a pedophile weighed in his decision. He said there was no truth to allegations from West’s supporters that the paper was engaged, as he put it, in “prurient titillation.”

The newspaper’s actions have stirred debate within the community, as well as among journalism professors and newspaper editors; several editors have said they would not allow their reporters to carry out such a ruse.

Many Spokane residents seemed to agree.

“Entrapping a guy,” said Lonnie Luce, 56, a landscape gardener. “Isn’t that what the police do? That’s not a newspaper’s job.”

Complicating the paper’s coverage are charges by some West supporters that it is payback for the mayor’s role in reducing city financing of a downtown mall project involving the newspaper’s owners.

Smith denied any connection.

At the Art Deco-style City Hall on Wednesday, beneath a banner proclaiming Spokane an “All America City,” a few protesters held signs saying “Boycott the Spokesman-Review Newspaper Forever” and “Stop This Great Injustice.” A motorcyclist riding by honked his horn in support.

“I think it’s all a big lie,” said one protester, Livia Vanweerthuizen, a nurse and 18-year resident of Spokane. “I don’t care what they’re printing. I think Jim West’s a good man.”