ILLUSTRATION: Keat Teoh
A judge will decide this week whether a $581,000 lawsuit against the City of Portland brought by Mayor Sam Adams’ former spokesman should go to trial.
But one issue is already clear—city attorneys are mounting a fierce legal fight to prevent Adams from being questioned under oath for the first time about his relationship with Beau Breedlove.
Multnomah County Judge Pro Tem Thomas Christ is set to rule by Friday, Sept. 17, on the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Wade Nkrumah. A former reporter at The Oregonian, Nkrumah accepted a job in fall 2008 as Adams’ spokesman (or “flack” in newsroom parlance) after taking a two-year buyout as part of a cost-cutting measure offered reporters at the daily.
Nkrumah’s suit claims Adams made his new job intolerable by repeatedly using Nkrumah to lie to the public while the Breedlove scandal exploded right after Adams became mayor in January 2009 (see “Why Adams Confessed,” WW, Jan. 21, 2009). Nkrumah also claims Adams smeared his reputation by falsely claiming on TV that Nkrumah quit after less than one month because the job was too stressful.
The city denies Nkrumah’s claims and wants his lawsuit thrown out of court. But if the case goes to trial next month, Nkrumah’s attorney, Michael Hanlon, wants to depose Adams under oath and on video.
Those recordings typically become part of the public record. And the city is opposing that.
On Sept. 13, Senior Deputy City Attorney Tracy Reeve requested a protective order barring Hanlon from asking Adams any questions about Breedlove.
“There is no basis (other than to harass or embarrass the mayor) to inquire at the mayor’s deposition into the relationship between the mayor and Mr. Breedlove,” Reeve wrote.
She also asked the court to order that any video from Adams’ deposition be withheld from the public.
“[Nkrumah] should not be permitted to make a videotape of the deposition to use as a tool to try his case in the press or to embarrass, annoy or oppress the mayor,” she wrote.
Breedlove has said publicly that Adams kissed him twice in 2005 when Breedlove was 17—a possible crime under Oregon law. But Adams denies any sexual contact before Breedlove turned 18. Attorney General John Kroger’s investigation in 2009 concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge Adams with a crime.
Kroger’s office questioned Adams, but the mayor never testified under oath because the case never went to a grand jury. Lying in a deposition can result in a felony perjury conviction with a likely sentence of two years’ probation.
Hanlon, Nkrumah’s attorney, says he definitely wants to question Adams about when sexual contact happened. “That is very much at issue,” Hanlon says.
The lawsuit is one of the last remaining significant loose threads from a scandal that threatened to topple Adams three weeks into his first term as mayor.
The statute of limitations has passed for the crimes that prosecutors would look at charging if new facts come to light about the timing of Adams’ relationship with Breedlove. Still, a deposition video could prove an embarrassment to Adams by rehashing the scandal.
Yet there’s also risk to Nkrumah’s reputation if the case goes to trial. City lawyers could mock him for seeking nearly eight times his salary—a view already staked out by Oregonian columnist Steve Duin in a Sept. 12 piece about the lawsuit.
Judge Christ had pointed words for both sides at a Sept. 10 hearing with Hanlon and Reeve. His decision whether to toss the case may hinge on meta-questions like how much truth citizens should expect from government, or even the definition of a lie.
Hanlon was forced to concede that Nkrumah was never directly ordered to mislead the public. Rather, Nkrumah repeatedly received untruthful information from Adams or his chief of staff, Tom Miller, then in some cases relayed that information to the public—only to find out later it was false.
“That’s not a lie on his part,” Christ said at the hearing. “Sure, he was played as a patsy. But he was not himself instructed to lie.”
Nkrumah claims Adams’ untruths made the workplace so intolerable that any reasonable person would be forced to quit. And Hanlon argued in the Sept. 10 hearing that a jury should be allowed to decide whether that is true.
“Is it reasonable to act as a spokesperson and continually be given false information?” Hanlon asked. “If I lied to the public, I am breaching my obligation to the public trust.”
But Christ was doubtful.
“It’s ironic you’re giving me this [argument], because it’s common knowledge that officials lie to the public all of the time,” Christ said. “It’s become a joke.”
“People have become jaded,” Hanlon replied.
FACT: The city has spent $32,000 defending against Nkrumah’s lawsuit since he filed it in July 2009, according to the city attorney’s office.