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September 29th, 1999 Patty Wentz | Cover Story
 

Buff Daddy

Multnomah county may be able to shut Geoff Thompson down, but it will never be able to shut him up.

     
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 ince last June, Geoff Thompson has been banned from Multnomah County.
Not from the actual county, of course, but from the county offices. A letter signed by County Attorney Patrick Henry warns that if Thompson shows up at a county office unannounced, the police will be called. The county took that move, according to the letter, because of Thompson's continued verbal abuse, use of profanity, displays of anger and "physical and verbal threats" against staff in four county agencies, the county counsel office and the office of County Chairwoman Beverly Stein.

According to Stein's assistant Jason Dimen, the county is taking the additional precaution of having a sheriff's deputy present during any meetings with Thompson.

"We've never gone to that length before," says Dimen.

Thompson admits he is no fan of Multnomah County. He says, however, that Stein is overreacting to his personality. "I'm direct," he says. "People don't like that."

Thompson operates the Viewpoint Inn and Restaurant in Corbett, a spectacular property that perches 1,100 feet above the river in the Columbia Gorge. He bought the inn two years ago for $650,000. This week, at the request of the county, Judge Jean Kerr Maurer issued a preliminary injunction to put Thompson out of business.

At issue is whether Thompson has been operating the inn as a commercial restaurant instead of the vocational school for the mentally disabled he promised to open two years ago.

Thompson says he knew he wouldn't get a fair hearing under Maurer. "I don't want to be sexist," he says, "but I think there is some ego going on there, with her being a woman judge."

Thompson's story is as much about unmitigated gall as it is about land-use laws. It is the story of how one of Portland's biggest bullies may finally have had his comeuppance.

Thompson hasn't always been a restaurateur. He has also been a country-western singer, a soap peddler and a nude model ("Jack-of-All-Trades," page 26). "I think you can do anything you want in life," he says. "Me, I'm a genius at marketing."

Through all his careers, he says, he has advocated for the mentally disabled. The reason, Thompson says, is his younger brother, Matt, 36, who was born with physical and mental disabilities. In 1994, after their mother died, Matt moved into a county-licensed group home, at which he was "abused and neglected," Thompson says. "He was sent off with an empty lunch box to work and he was left on his own too much."

Spurred by the desire to create a better life for his brother, in 1995 Thompson opened the Lois Thompson Housing Project on Northeast 97th Avenue. There, his brother and three other mentally disabled residents were cared for by Thompson and his business partner and companion of 10 years, Stephen Perkins.

The work was exhausting, but Thompson didn't have extra money for additional staff. In 1997, however, he hit on an idea that he says he thought would give him the resources to hire help.

That year, Thompson learned that the Viewpoint Inn was for sale. He had dreamed of owning the property since he was a child. The inn was designed by Carl Linde in 1924 to be a teahouse and restaurant serving the auto tourists that flocked to the Columbia River Highway. It has a massive river-rock fireplace in the center of an elegant dining room and two gorgeous guest rooms upstairs. The west-facing alcove is all French doors and glass, providing a dizzying view of the gorge from Crown Point to the bridge over Interstate 205.

From 1962 to 1997 the inn was a private residence, but Thompson wanted to reopen it as a commercial business. "The thinking was," he says, "to earn enough money from the inn to support the group home."

There was one problem with his plan: the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act.

In 1986, Congress passed the NSA essentially to place the Columbia Gorge in a development deep-freeze. The gorge, one of nature's most spectacular works of architecture, was considered so precious that it merited permanent protection from unchecked development. The NSA formed the 12-member Columbia Gorge Commission, which created some of the most rigid land-use laws in the state. Because the Viewpoint was a private home when the act took effect, the law said it must remain a private home forever. Only an act of Congress could change it.

Thompson found a pinprick of a loophole in the act, and he barreled through it: Certain kinds of educational facilities are allowed to operate in the gorge. In July 1997, Thompson applied for a permit from Multnomah County, which administers the NSA. The application stated that the Lois Thompson Housing Project for Challenged Citizens, a nonprofit organization, was purchasing the Viewpoint. The stated purpose was to run a vocational school for disabled adults. On a letter attached to the application, Thompson wrote, "We plan to reopen the restaurant on weekends to serve breakfast and lunch and offer two suites for overnight weekend guests."

The county agreed this would be a low-impact, beneficial use of the property. A hearings officer issued Thompson a permit in October 1997.

Michael Lang of the watchdog group Friends of the Columbia Gorge says his organization supported the permit application, while making it clear a commercial use of the property would be illegal.

"When I went into the hearing, and I saw four developmentally disabled people with Thompson, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt," says Lang. "Thompson claimed he was going to do some good for society."

That isn't the way it worked out. Before the permit was even issued, Thompson started holding concerts at the inn and staying open late nights.Childhood acquaintance Michael Allen Harrison had a fund-raising concert that July. To the eye of Lennart Swenson, a Corbett neighbor, the Viewpoint was more a business than a school. Swenson sits on the board of directors of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. He says he and his wife went to dinner at the inn when it first opened. "The only handicapped person there was Geoff Thompson's brother," Swenson says. "He was folding some napkins, then sat down and chatted with people the whole time." Swenson and several other neighbors complained to Multnomah County.

In July--two years, five warning letters and one notice of violation later--the county filed suit against Thompson. What took so long? Stein says the county was stumped by Thompson's tenacity. "Usually when we tell people they're breaking the law," she says, "they stop. Thompson never has."

In the request for a preliminary injunction, the county accuses Thompson and Perkins of the following violations of the conditional-use permit, among others:

* The Viewpoint is not an educational facility and does not train developmentally disabled adults.

* Disabled adults do not make up the primary workforce of the inn.

* The Viewpoint has been open for food service seven days a week as late as midnight, instead of just the four meals a week Thompson promised.

* In addition to being used as a restaurant, the Viewpoint is operating as a banquet facility and catering service and holds weddings nearly every weekend during the summer months--none of which is allowed under the conditional-use permit.

Ron Hurl, who was a partner in The Viewpoint Inn and Restaurant Inc. from August 1998 until April, says Thompson's primary dream was for a restaurant, and he thought he could run the school as well.

Hurl says he knows this because he had a personal interest in seeing Thompson's dream fulfilled. Hurl's 21-year-old daughter has autism, and he says he is all too familiar with bad homes.

As Thompson's partner, Hurl says, he maxed out his credit cards to loan him $40,000. He also stepped in when Thompson's bad credit kept him from getting a loan to buy the inn. Hurl arranged financing under his own name to pay off the $625,000 lease-to-own option.

Hurl bolted in April, he says, when the county issued the first notice of violation. He says it became clear to him then that the inn was nothing but Thompson's fantasy.

"Getting involved with Geoff Thompson was the stupidest thing I've ever done--and the most anguishing," he says.

Thompson's defense is as ballsy as it is illogical.

He says his permit granted him permission to run a vocational school, and that it's up to him to determine what that means. "We have never broken the terms of our conditional-use permit," he says. "Where does it say we can't be open longer hours? Where does it say we can't hold weddings? I can't run this place using a majority of disabled people."

He acknowledges that most of his employees are not disabled, but that the residents of his group home were, and that they were learning skills--such as how to pour water and show up for work. He also says that for several weeks last year Corbett High School sent a group of developmentally disabled students to work at the inn.

Thompson says finances forced him to extend his hours. "You can't run a million-dollar property," he says, "on breakfast and lunch."

The Scenic Act's guidelines for operating a vocational school are indeed vague. Thompson never submitted a curriculum plan or said how many students he would train, but the county never asked.

The county says knowing the details of the school was not necessary to issue the land-use permit. Jeff Litwak, a county attorney, says it was the violations that triggered further investigation.

What's not in dispute, however, is Thompson's style. He has gone beyond merely breaking his permit. He's creating chaos in the gorge and at the county.

Swenson, his neighbor, has experienced the heat of Thompson's legendary temper first-hand.

Swenson's vocal opposition to the Viewpoint has angered Thompson. During a phone conversation this summer, Swenson says, Thompson accused him of meddling because Swenson's wife is in a wheelchair (she has multiple sclerosis) and he needs something to do while "stuck at home with her."

"Finally I hung up after several minutes," says Swenson. "The phone rang again with his tirade. He couldn't stop."

Thompson confirmed the story. "He needs to get a life," he says of Swenson.

Swenson also says that after he testified against Thompson two weeks ago in court, Thompson approached him and said he had better watch out or his house could burn down over the weekend.

Thompson denies he made that comment. His anger counselor was with him that day, and he says he felt in control.

"I wasn't angry at the hearing that day," he says. "I looked incredible and I did great."

Thompson has also had run-ins with a number of bureaucrats at the county, leading to his banishment from county offices. Thompson admits he has been aggressive with county staff, but says it was in defense of his brother, who is now living in a group home in Portland.

"Had I not gotten in their faces, my brother would have been continually attacked," says Thompson.

As for the charge that he's been verbally abusive with other county staff, he says that most of it is just blatant hearsay.

"OK, I told Jeff Litwak to fuck off," he says.

Talking with Thompson is like talking with someone who has a syndrome like Tourette's, but one that compels not only profanity but also grandiose claims, deeply cutting insults and threats.

Thompson says the entire case against him is built on the insecurity and idiocy of county employees.

He says it isn't permit violations that have brought the wrath of the county upon him, it's that the county's enforcement officer is so unattractive that she is wreaking revenge on him to build herself up. "People probably made her miserable her entire life," he says. "This is her chance to squish out the people I represent, the people who can control what they put in their mouths."

As for Stein, "She is a despicable human being. If she shuts us down I will dedicate my life to destroying her gubernatorial campaign."

Thompson even attacked when given a chance to tell his side of the story. "From the beginning it was clear this story was going to be slanted against me," he told this reporter. "I don't know who you're sleeping with at the Friends of the Columbia Gorge."

The restaurant at the Viewpoint has been closed for the last month. Thompson says he didn't have the energy to run it while fighting the county. He has continued to hold weddings and special functions, but this week's injunction will cancel all weddings and events after Oct. 30.

Thompson says it will be impossible for him to run the Viewpoint without commercial income. Earlier this month the bank foreclosed on the group home on 97th Avenue. For the past two weeks he and Perkins have been sleeping on a futon in the servants' quarters over the Viewpoint's kitchen.

Still, he is optimistic about his future. He says he's ready to lead a recall campaign against Stein, and may run for the commission. He says his battle with the county has generated public support for his cause, and the time may be right to cash in on it for a political career.

"Why not?" he says. "I've been bankrupt. I'm queer. I've been in people's faces. But I'm human." 


Facts:

Geoff Thompson says his reputation as a bully is undeserved. "I'm just a pussycat," he says. "I'm really a nice guy, and I'm far more sensitive than you would think by looking at me."

Despite the controversy, the Viewpoint Inn has been enormously popular with the public--especially couples looking for a scenic spot to tie the knot. Many patrons oppose the county's efforts to shut it down.

Corbett neighbor Lennart Swenson, who has been on the receiving end of a Thompson tirade, testified in court that the Viewpoint owner is "mental."

Geoff Thompson says he works out six days a week and does not take steroids.

Thompson and Perkins are appealing their permit with the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

Thompson got a $45,000 grant from Fred Meyer Trust for restoration of the inn.

Thompson says he was the October 1986 Playgirl centerfold.

Thompson once had dreams of being a country-western singer. In the mid-1980s, he had a contract with Arista Records. He was dropped, he says, because he failed to generate a hit single.

Ron Hurl was a partner with Thompson and Stephen Perkins at the Viewpoint Inn. He left when it became clear the county would never let Thompson run the inn as he wanted.

Thompson hasn't given up on a music career. He has made a transition to dance music and recently recorded a CD independently. Singles include "People Have the Power" and "Crossing the River."

The Viewpoint Inn is on the National Historic Registry.


Jack Of All Trades

Thompson's calendar, "If you want my body," was done as a fund-raiser for his group home, the Lois Thompson Housing Project, and included this shot of himself.

Geoff Thompson's career has been a combination of narcissism and a sincere desire to help the mentally disabled. In 1996, for example, as a fund-raiser for his group home for mentally disabled adults, he produced a calender featuring nude photos of himself called "If You Want My Body."
In 1992, Thompson started a cosmetics company, Men by Geoff Thompson. It was a line of natural products that he promoted all over town. He advertised that he would give a portion of his profits to World Wildlife Fund, and he used workers from St. Vincent dePaul to package the products.

He landed contracts with Saks and Nordstrom and took out full-page ads in Glamour and Men's Health magazines. Never one to downplay his own importance, today Thompson says, "We pioneered the 'green thing.'"

The business didn't last long. An investigation by KPTV's Northwest Reports in 1993 revealed that one of his products, the liquid soap, was actually Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap. Although it's common to repackage the product of another manufacturer, Thompson had claimed he'd invented the entire line. KPTV also reported that Thompson's business was in financial trouble--that he wasn't paying his employees or                        his creditors.

Rather than pay his creditors, Thompson sent them a letter that said, in part, "We ask that you limit your phone calls to us inquiring about payments and we ask you not to pursue legal action. These two things simply paralyze us, keeping us from doing our work."

Ultimately, a slew of lawsuits were filed against Thompson over Men, and he was granted Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1993, leaving $160,000 in unpaid bills.

Today, Thompson brushes off culpability. "We did nothing wrong," he says. "So we bounced a few checks."

Thompson has even had trouble with the endeavor he says is closest to his heart. In 1995 he opened the Lois Thompson Housing Project on Northeast 97th Avenue for his younger brother and three other residents. He and Stephen Perkins were licensed by Multnomah County to provide 24-hour care at the facility, which was named after Thompson's mother. By most accounts, he ran a loving and efficient home.

But the housing project fell apart as Thompson was trying to build up the Viewpoint.

Documents from Multnomah County show that beginning in 1998, the county began getting complaints from family members: that Thompson was leaving the residents unsupervised, that there was domestic violence between him and Perkins, and that Thompson was hitting up the residents' families for more money. Thompson was fined $500 by the county on May 14, 1998.

County officials were also concerned about Thompson's financial stability, in part because on Christmas Day 1998, he ran an advertisement in The Oregonian that asked for help. The ad said the bank was foreclosing on the Lois Thompson Housing Project. In January, the county sent a letter to Thompson requesting financial statements. Thompson never sent them in.

In March, Thompson voluntarily gave up his license to operate the Lois Thompson Housing Project. In June, his brother and the other residents moved to other homes. Thompson told WW the county's requirements to write weekly progress reports on the residents and post daily menus for the home were niggling and unnecessary.

He says he is also under investigation by the state Department of Justice for Medicare/Medicaid fraud.

Thompson says the problems at the Lois Thompson Housing Project stemmed from the Viewpoint controversy.

"It's all being driven by the land-use issue," he says. "I look at Multnomah County as being really fascist."

Bob Palmer, program manager of the county's Adult Care Home Program, thinks things could have worked out. He says the complaints against Thompson were not serious and that he ran a good home. While Thompson was known to yell at Perkins and other people, Palmer says, Thompson did not abuse the residents. "He just got caught up in the areas of rules and regulations and for reasons of his own, that drove his decision to get out. The issue was never the quality of his home."

Dr. Fred Weisensee, an internist, was on the board of directors of Lois Thompson until he moved to Corvallis last year. He loaned Thompson money--he won't say how much or when--and hasn't been paid back. He doesn't really expect to be anymore. Still, he considers Thompson a friend, albeit a complex one.

"It does bother me to some degree, but it's one of those situations where I try to see he's done a lot of good," he says. "Many people are mixed bags where they have pluses and minuses."



 
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