Paper Reveals Private Side of Spokane Mayor

In a series of articles, the Spokesman-Review has revealed that Spokane, Wash., Mayor Jim West has sought relationships with young men whom he has met over the Internet. Melissa Block talks with Steven Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The mayor of Spokane, Washington, Jim West, has been accused of sexually abusing young boys back in the 1970s. And an investigation by a Spokane newspaper has revealed that Mayor West, a conservative Republican, has been trolling for sexual relationships with young men over the Internet as recently as last month. The Spokane Spokesman-Review also reports that Mayor West offered gifts and favors of his office to the young men he was pursuing. Steven Smith is editor of the Spokesman-Review.

And, Mr. Smith, there are two parts to this story. The first is the alleged sexual abuse of the boys back in the 1970s when Jim West was a sheriff's deputy in Spokane. These are charges he's denied, is that right?

Mr. STEVEN SMITH (Editor, Spokesman-Review): That's correct.

BLOCK: And tell us a bit about these charges.

Mr. SMITH: In the late '70s, early 1980s, Jim West was a Spokane county sheriff's deputy. He was close friends and traveling partners and co-Scout leaders with another deputy, David Hahn. We now know that David Hahn was a serial abuser. He killed himself in 1981--shot himself. And in investigating the sex abuse scandal in the Sheriff's Department back in the '80s, our reporters, Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn-Steele, made the connection between Hahn and Mayor West. And after publishing a series of stories on Hahn in 2003, they began to try to develop the links that might have connected Mayor West with David Hahn and his abuse.

BLOCK: Then there's this more recent chapter, which has to do with the mayor's activity on the Internet. Why did your paper start looking into that story?

Mr. SMITH: Well, our reporters were looking for the individuals who might be potential victims of abuse in the '80s. We needed names. We had no specific names, no locations, no corroborative evidence. Last fall, fall of 2004, Bill Morlin, in seeking out names of potential victims, was told by one of his sources, `I just talked with an 18-year-old boy who says he's just had sex with the mayor.' And he gave us the name of that individual, and we talked with him and discovered, in that set of interviews, that in current time, as mayor of the city of Spokane, the mayor was going onto a Web site and seeking out partners. And that was how he encountered that one boy.

BLOCK: Your paper actually hired a forensic computer expert to try to run this down. Can you explain how that worked, what he did?

Mr. SMITH: We hired a specialist, who works for law enforcement agencies tracking pedophiles and others on the Internet, to help us ascertain without a shadow of a doubt that the person behind the screen names on Gay.com was, in fact, Mayor West. And he engaged in two months of interaction with the mayor to help us develop that hard evidence that we needed.

In the end, we moved to the point where we actually had to have some physical documentation. And so the very end of this process, we had our consultant set up a meeting, which the mayor had been seeking. And we watched the mayor arrive at a particular location at a particular time to meet the young man he expected to meet.

BLOCK: And the young men that he was corresponding with on the Internet, were they all over the age of 18?

Mr. SMITH: We've not been able to ascertain through the Internet portion of our investigation that he engaged in activities with anyone under the age of 18.

BLOCK: You've called this activity by Mayor West an abuse or a misuse of power. How so? Why is that?

Mr. SMITH: Well--and this is an important distinction to draw--the mayor's private life, under ordinary circumstances, is the mayor's private life, and his sexuality's not really the issue. But in trolling for these young men barely of legal age, 18 years old, he engaged in grooming behavior that included the offer of gifts and benefits which came to him through the auspices of his public office. And, in our view, that moves into the arena of misuse of office.

BLOCK: You wrote a note to readers when your first stories ran last week in which you talked about having some qualms about creating this fictional scenario with your forensic consultant. Have you thought through fully the impact of that and whether that was the right decision to make?

Mr. SMITH: Absolutely. It was actually quite an agonizing decision and one that we spent a considerable amount of time in the newsroom debating. Fundamentally, it came down to two issues. There was no other way to absolutely confirm without doubt that the mayor was online using the screen names on Gay.com. And, potentially, we were dealing with a situation where children and young people were at risk, and that overrode our other considerations on the expert.

BLOCK: Steven Smith, thanks very much.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Steven Smith is the editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane Washington.

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