On Background

How exactly did Kulongoski pal Matt Hennessee get through background checks?

For the second time in Gov. Ted Kulongoski's tenure, a high-profile appointment threatens to blow up in his face.

Last week, The Oregonian published a story about former Portland Development Commission chairman Matt Hennessee's sexual abuse of a young girl starting when she was 12 or 13 in the early 1990s.

Several things about the abuse—which Hennessee confirmed in emails obtained by The Oregonian—are eerie. The first and most obvious is the parallel to former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, who in May 2004 admitted his own sexual abuse 30 years ago of a young girl starting when she was 14. That admission came six months after Kulongoski appointed Goldschmidt to the Board of Higher Education.

Hennessee, the CEO of Quiktrak, a Lake Oswego inventory-management company, got his first Oregon job in the Goldschmidt gubernatorial administration. In 1987, he was hired by then-Insurance Commissioner Kulongoski to run the state's workers'-compensation program. Hennessee later served on Kulongoski's gubernatorial transition team and led the prayer at Kulongoski's inauguration.

Last year, Kulongoski asked Hennessee to lead SAIF, the troubled state workers'-comp insurer. Hennessee declined the CEO job but last November accepted Kulongoski's appointment to SAIF's board.

For Hennessee, the board appointment meant agreeing to a background check by Oregon State Police. Similarly, Goldschmidt submitted to an FBI background check for a federal cabinet post in 1979 and later endured the scrutiny of a gubernatorial term.

All appointees to gubernatorial commissions sign a form allowing the governor's office "to obtain any and all records pertaining to [the appointee] on file with...law-enforcement agencies."

State Police Lt. Randie Martz conducted Hennessee's criminal-history check as he does for about 30 appointees each month. (There are more than 200 gubernatorial commissions.)

"The report I did checks for warrants and arrests, and his came back clean," Martz says.

Although a call to the Portland Police Bureau would have yielded a damning 1993 report about Hennessee, it did not show up in Martz's computer search because police never charged Hennessee.

Hennessee also—accurately, it seems—checked "no" in the boxes on the appointment form that asked whether he had ever been convicted or sued. "He truthfully answered the questions," Martz says. "It's unfortunate he didn't tell us everything."

At least the state checked. When former Mayor Vera Katz named Hennessee to the development commission in July 2002, nobody looked into his background. The city's commission appointment form doesn't include a background check, and the city doesn't usually do them.

"I'm quite certain that there wasn't a police background check for Hennessee," says former top Katz aide Judy Tuttle. "Commission appointments have historically been done based on recommendations by people in the community."

That level of trust is scary. Although there is no evidence anybody blackmailed Hennessee, as chairman he wielded tremendous influence over the redevelopment agency's $254 million annual budget and was obviously vulnerable.

Despite that vulnerability, however, as recently as a month ago Hennessee was considering a run for office. People close to Hennessee even contacted political strategist Mark Wiener, looking for a way to jump-start his political future in Portland.

On Monday, Quiktrak's board placed Hennessee on leave. Meanwhile, Kulongoski is in the same position he was 18 months ago with Goldschmidt—denying he knew a close ally's secret. "The governor learned about [Hennessee's abuse of the girl] when he read it in the paper," says a spokeswoman, Anna Richter Taylor.

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.