The Hon. Gordon D. Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, finds himself close to power—and an impeachment investigation.
Sondland was scheduled to provide closed-door congressional testimony Oct. 8 about his role in President Donald J. Trump's communications with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky regarding former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
The U.S. Department of State, however, abruptly canceled his testimony—for now. In a statement, Sondland said he was "profoundly disappointed."
House impeachment investigators are trying to determine what Sondland knows about the Trump administration's efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Biden, Trump's leading challenger in 2020.
The impeachment proceedings have resulted in national attention for Sondland, 62. He was already well known in Portland business, political and philanthropic circles. A company he founded, Provenance Hotels, owns or operates six Portland properties, including the Heathman Hotel and the Hotels Lucia and deLuxe. He served as CEO there before joining the State Department. He's also served on a variety of boards, including the Oregon Health & Science University Foundation and the Portland Art Museum, and has contributed generously to politicians of both parties.
But Sondland, who grew up in Mercer Island, Wash., has never registered to vote in Oregon, although he spends much of his time in Portland, where his wife lives and his two children grew up. Sondland's voting address remains the Hotel Theodore, a Seattle property his company acquired more than 30 years ago. The Seattle Times remarked on that paradox in a profile last week. "Sondland is not a household name in Seattle, or even in state GOP politics, although he is a major civic and power player in Oregon," the Times wrote.
In fact, he's half of a Portland power couple. Sondland's wife, Katherine J. Durant, is a real estate investor and a registered Democrat. They live in a $2.5 million West Hills home, where the couple has regularly hosted political fundraisers.
Here are some things Portlanders may not know—or have forgotten—about Sondland.
He drives a hard bargain. In April 2005, the Portland Development Commission rolled out the latest plan for a publicly owned headquarters hotel adjacent to the Oregon Convention Center. Sondland, whose company's Portland hotels are on the west side of the Willamette River, opposed the move. After Sondland's company and its allies fought Metro's headquarters hotel for a decade—including filing lawsuits to block it—Sondland's attorney suggested in a May 2015 letter that Metro end its partnership with the Hyatt Hotels Corporation and instead allow his company to own and operate the hotel. In the end, Sondland's company agreed to end its opposition to the project in exchange for an adjacent parking lot, appraised at $1.94 million.
He and his wife are generous. The Sondland Durant Foundation has given millions over the past three decades, much of it locally. In 2008, the couple's foundation gave $1 million to provide children free admission to the Portland Art Museum; in 2009, the foundation gave $50,000 to save Portland Parks & Recreation's summer concerts. More recently, they gave $50,000 to the Oregon Harbor of Hope, a Portland navigation center for homeless people. They also send their money elsewhere. In 2017, tax filings show, Sondland and Durant's foundation gave $1.5 million to Duke University, where their son, Max, is a member of the class of 2020. That gift follows a $100,000 gift to Duke in 2016.
He doesn't wilt under criticism. In 2010, residents of Hayden Island became fed up with a string of booming lottery delis they said brought crime to their neighborhood. The neighbors focused their ire on Sondland and Durant, the delis' landlords. Sondland's response? He publicly mulled renting some idle Hayden Island space to a strip club. He defended his thinking to The Oregonian's Steve Duin. "You're implying that because I serve on the art museum board, which is something I'm doing for the community, that somehow carries the responsibility to encumber my real estate," Sondland told Duin. "I don't understand the connection. That doesn't make any sense to me." (The couple didn't rent to the strip joint.)
Like Trump, Sondland showed an interest in bringing ice skating to the masses. In 1986, Trump took over Wollman Rink, the then-decrepit public skating rink in New York's Central Park. In 2004, when Sondland served as the president of the board of Pioneer Courthouse Square, he expressed a willingness to allow construction of a temporary rink in the square, a novelty favored by downtown business interests but received icily by the public, which killed the idea.
Sondland and Durant are serious Ayn Rand devotees. The couple share an affection for the late novelist and Objectivist philosopher, who emphasized pursuing one's self-interest. One of Durant's companies is named Atlas Investments—after Rand's best-known novel, Atlas Shrugged—and another of her companies owns a downtown Portland building called "The Galt." (John Galt is the book's main character.) Sondland shared his political philosophy in a 2012 interview with The Oregonian about the city of Portland's proposed arts tax. "I prefer lower taxes and smaller government," Sondland said, "but in this case, I don't consider it a product of larger government. I consider the arts part of the larger community."
Democrats put Durant in a position of enormous authority. In 2005, Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed Katy Durant to the Oregon Investment Council, the five-member board that decides how to invest more than $100 billion in state pension funds. Durant served under three Democratic governors, ending her service in December 2016. Her exit letter to Gov. Kate Brown chastising the state for doing too little to shore up its then-$22 billion unfunded pension liability gave rise to speculation she might someday run for governor herself.
Sondland is politically flexible. In 2002, Sondland served on the transition team for then-Gov.-elect Kulongoski. The incoming Democrat nominated Sondland to the Oregon Film board, where he served for 13 years, expanding the agency's subsidy of film and TV production. Sondland also supported Kulongoski's Democratic successor, John Kitzhaber. He and his companies donated nearly $16,000 to Kitzhaber's 2014 re-election campaign. In February 2013, Sondland hosted Kitzhaber and first lady Cylvia Hayes at a wine country dinner. "Thanks to you and Cylvia for schlepping out to Dundee," Sondland wrote in a follow-up email. "I feel confident you have the full support of every single person at that table."
That willingness to support Democrats did not extend to Gov. Kate Brown. Sondland and Durant gave Brown's opponent, state Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend), $60,000 last year.
Sondland supports higher education. In addition to the OHSU Foundation, he has served on the Board of Visitors for the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, but according to a University of Washington spokeswoman, he left UW in 1978 after three years without graduating.
He wasn't always a Trump supporter. In 2004, Sondland supported President George W. Bush. In 2008, he supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). In 2012, he backed now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). In 2016, he initially supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Those men all later panned Trump. And in August 2016, after Trump won the GOP nomination, Sondland pulled out of a scheduled Seattle fundraiser after Trump savaged a Muslim American military family.
"In light of Mr. Trump's treatment of the Khan family and the fact his constantly evolving positions diverge from their personal beliefs and values on so many levels, neither Mr. Sondland nor [Provenance Hotels president Bashar] Wali can support [Trump's] candidacy," Provenance spokeswoman Kate Buska told WW then. (Sondland later donated $1 million to help pay for Trump's inauguration—not in his own name but through four limited liability companies.)
Sondland is active in local politics—except in the most basic way. One of Sondland's companies gave $5,000 to support a bond measure last year to fund affordable housing. He's given money to Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Nick Fish and, before them, Mayor Sam Adams. He's active in Oregon governors' races and ballot measures—but what he's never done in Oregon is vote. For decades, his voting address has been a Seattle hotel, and Oregon elections officials confirmed Oct. 4 he's never registered to vote here.