Nigel Jaquiss: Bringing Down an Esteemed Political Figure

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Nigel Jaquiss holds a special place in the Association of Alternative Newsweekly’s book, Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005. His articles for Willamette Week, "The 30-Year Secret" and "Who Knew," exposed Oregon powerbroker Neil Goldschmidt’s decades-old sexual abuse and statutory rape of his family’s 14 year-old babysitter.

Unraveling perhaps the biggest question in Northwest politics — why Goldschmidt left public politics while at his apex — garnered Jaquiss a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting, along with a 2005 AltWeekly Award in Investigative Reporting.

A Dartmouth graduate, Jaquiss spent more than 10 years trading oil before he decided to switch careers and enrolled at Columbia University, where he earned a master’s in journalism. He joined Willamette Week in 1998. He spoke to AAN News about his investigative methods, the advantages of being "scooped," and repaying his karmic debts.

When ex-governor Goldschmidt returned to the public eye by being appointed to Oregon’s State Board of Higher Education, you started examining his business transactions, but you ended up writing about sexual abuse. What gears did you have to shift in your reporting?

I was looking for examples of his business dealings, and when a state senator told me she had a document that could possibly link him to sexual abuse, I knew that was a far bigger story. I’ve never written about the business aspects I found, because it would seem like piling on now. I essentially dropped that aspect of the story completely.

Once I had his alleged victim’s name, I said, "I want every piece of paper I can find that has her name on it." That should lead me to people who know her and know her story. The first stage was finding those people; the second was getting them to talk; then the third stage was finding the circumstantial evidence and indirect corroboration in the documents themselves. In a couple of the woman’s court files, including one that described a rape she had later suffered in Seattle, I found reference to sexual abuse by a family friend 21 years her senior, which mapped precisely to Goldschmidt. This story was basically built on public records.

You contrast Goldschmidt’s achievements in the years since the abuse with the victim’s downward trajectory. Why did you structure the story that way?

I was wed to that concept because she had been a straight-A student, had been at the best private high school in Portland. She was certainly going places when her life intersected with his. And he was, too — he went from strength to strength to strength. That gets to the bottom of why I thought this story was worth doing. Her life was essentially destroyed, with no real cost to him. He’s the living embodiment of a double standard — there are the soccer coaches who get arrested on a weekly basis for sexually abusing minors, and there seems to be another standard entirely for the guys who have the power.

On May 6, 2004, you met with Goldschmidt’s attorney, and he asked you not to publish your report. But that afternoon Goldschmidt went to Portland’s daily paper, The Oregonian, where he confessed to a decades-old "affair" with a high school student. You ended up posting a story to Willamette Week’s Web site at 5 p.m. that day. Is the story you posted to the Web the one you’d originally envisioned?

We were really scrambling. Goldschmidt had issued a press release saying he was stepping down from his positions due to health reasons. We went with a small summary of why we thought he was resigning on our Web site at 1:47 p.m. that day. Then when we heard he was going to The Oregonian, we released 2,000 words of what was probably a 4,000-word story. We tried to hold back as much as we could for print the next week.

The initial version had a whole lot more "Here’s how we know this." Because if you’re going with a story where the principals either deny or don’t comment, the burden of proof is pretty high. That burden of proof was removed when Goldschmidt confessed to The Oregonian. That was the good part — it unburdened the story of a pretty dry and lengthy section.

Was it difficult to let go of that part of the story?

In a way it was because you’re proud that you found something other people apparently couldn’t find. I would’ve much rather broken the story in print as we planned, but, in retrospect, it probably couldn’t have gone any better because The Oregonian really softballed their story. They made a complete and utter mess of it, and that really worked in our favor.

One, the tone of their coverage was fawning. Two, after running Goldschmidt’s confession, they published an op-ed by Robert K. Burtchaell, an original investor in Willamette Week who left the paper decades ago. They tried to hammer us with Burtchaell’s commentary, saying the story shouldn’t have been published, that what we had done wasn’t worth doing. They didn’t know that this guy was part of the cover-up, the guy who got the girl out of trouble. He was the "fixer" in Portland. And they also published an op-ed by one of their associate editors calling us sewer dwellers. That was great because I was able to say, "Here’s who this guy really is," and describe Burtchaell’s role in the cover-up, and how Goldschmidt did him a political favor as payback.

Could this story have been published anywhere besides an altweekly?

It’s a good question. I got that document about the sexual abuse on March 11, 2004; the previous November, Goldschmidt’s former speechwriter gave The Oregonian every detail of the story, basically. They had such a wealth of information it’s hard to imagine, and they did nothing with it. I found out later that in 1986, The Oregonian had a very credible source come to them with the same kind of information. So it’s pretty clear no one else was going to publish this story. The other paper in town, the Portland Tribune, was also way ahead of me. They were the source of the documents I got. The Tribune had given the state senator the documents because they basically gave up on the story. We were last. We were the last to know and the first to publish.

You had some help in reporting the story from Seattle Weekly reporter Philip Dawdy and others at Willamette Week, right?

I had tremendous help from Ellen Fagg, our (now former) arts editor. She went with me to see the victim. Philip Dawdy, who used to work for us here at Willamette Week, got these extremely important court documents describing the victim’s past sexual abuse that occurred in a time frame and by an unnamed person that fit Goldschmidt exactly. I also got a huge amount of help from my editor, Mark Zusman; from (now former) news editor John Schrag; and from another reporter here named Nick Budnick, who’s a tremendous document sleuth. It’s my name on the awards, but it was definitely a team effort. You couldn’t do this story alone.

One point people haven’t focused on is how Goldschmidt is the reason Portland is nationally known for a lot of really progressive ideas. He had enormous support locally, and I think it was very likely, had we published the story with two denials and his "No comment" or denial, you would’ve seen advertisers run away from this paper in droves. He is so much a part of the city and so popular, that Mark and the publisher, Richard Meeker, were essentially betting the paper on this story, the paper they’ve spent more than 20 years building up. Goldschmidt could’ve taken us down in a heartbeat.

What were the high and low points of pursuing the story for you?

There were two really low points. The first was going to Las Vegas, thinking the victim would confirm the story. I knew for reasons of confidentiality she probably couldn’t confirm on the record, but I hoped she would off the record and give me additional information. She denied it. I felt like, at that point, there was a very good chance I’d never get the story out, even though I was sure it was true.

The second low point was the day Goldschmidt took control and went to The Oregonian. I’d skipped a family wedding, a vacation my wife and kids had been looking forward to for a year. I basically worked every evening, all weekends — I really poured my life into it for two months, and I knew I’d probably never get a story that good again. I thought, "Shit, it’s disappearing into the front page of The Oregonian."

In terms of high points, there were many. Getting that document from the state senator. I remember standing by the fax machine like it was Christmas Day, waiting for those pages. Then our former colleague Philip Dawdy finding the rape documents in Seattle: That was huge. Probably the best feeling was when The Oregonian published Burtchaell’s op-ed, and they didn’t know who they were dealing with.

And I’m sure the Pulitzer was also a high point.

I shouldn’t forget that. That was an extraordinary day. As everybody at alt-weeklies knows, we sometimes don’t get the recognition our stories collectively deserve. I was thrilled just to be on the list of alleged finalists and really had no expectation that I would win. So that was pretty enormous.

After winning a Pulitzer, is there any sense of having hit a ceiling, or feeling like the rest of your career might be anti-climactic?

Why don’t I just shoot myself, right? [Laughs.] The week I went to New York to pick up the Pulitzer, I thought to myself, "I’m due for a fall here. I can’t have this good fortune without the reverse." And that week, my neck just gave out on me. I was in bed most of the summer, I had surgery, and I was just miserable. So I’m hoping in a way I’ve paid the price for my good fortune by having an awful summer.

I think any reporter who’s been at it for a while — and I’ve only been at it for eight years — after every story, there’s a letdown, and you think, "Am I ever going to have another good story?" After I publish what I think is a good story, I’ll think, "God, now my notebook’s empty. Will I ever get anything good again?" Inevitably, because people do things they shouldn’t, I’ll find another story.

I’m really having a blast. That’s all I really care about. I didn’t expect to win the Pulitzer, and I wasn’t in the business to win the Pulitzer. I’m really happy I won, but just because Goldschmidt’s over doesn’t mean I’m not excited.

Wells Dunbar is a staff writer covering news and politics for the Austin Chronicle. In June, he covered Jaquiss’s presentation at the AAN Convention in San Diego for AAN Convention Daily.

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