North By Northwest

Is Scott Caplan a cloak-and-dagger Portland lawyer, or did the CIA fool him into helping torture accused terrorists?

There appears little doubt Portland lawyer Scott Caplan worked for the CIA. The question is, did he know it?

In August 2003, when shadowy figures started a company in Oregon that subsequent reports linked to the CIA's practice of flying terror suspects to other countries to be tortured, it was Caplan—a $250-an-hour local business lawyer—who filed the paperwork with the state.

If it was anonymity the backers of the company called Bayard Foreign Marketing LLC wanted, they found it in Caplan.

A 46-year-old father of two from suburban West Linn, Caplan coaches youth soccer and works in the unadorned Pittock Block building in downtown Portland. Most of his work in 20 years of practice has been for small companies that need help filing articles of incorporation, reviewing contracts and dealing with workers.

While Caplan may have seemed a perfect cover, things went seriously awry when the national press jumped on the story, part of a larger investigation into a worldwide network of secret CIA prisons used in the war on terror. Reporters for the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune found out the company's listed owner—Leonard T. Bayard—had no official history and didn't appear to exist.

Now Caplan finds himself alone, facing difficult new questions from the Oregon State Bar, which is investigating a complaint that he represented Bayard under false pretenses.

Caplan gave WW his first interview last week since retired political science professor Michael Munk filed the bar complaint against him Oct. 3. Caplan's Portland attorney, Christopher Kent, arranged the meeting in his office last Friday but demanded there be no questions about Caplan's mysterious client. Kent allowed no recording of the interview, and Caplan refused to be photographed.

Nervous, with a baby face and closely cropped goatee, Caplan says his life is now in ruins. He fears for his safety and that of his family, his clients and his two law partners. He says his office has been stormed by protesters at least three times and TV crews twice, though he did not contact police to report the incidents.

The bar investigation hasn't determined yet that there's enough evidence to prosecute. But if it decides there is enough evidence and finds wrongdoing, penalties could range from public reprimand to disbarment.

Caplan told the bar he had reason to believe Bayard was a real person, but that attorney-client privilege prevents him saying anything more, including how they met—something the bar demands to know. He says that, in his dream world, "the bar comes out with a ruling of no wrongdoing, and I can just go back to practicing law and doing what I love to do."

A self-described "boring guy," Caplan says he has no history with the CIA or any other spy agency. Born and raised in the Portland area, where his family belonged to the prestigious Multnomah Athletic Club, Caplan is a registered Democrat with no military training and no criminal record. He says he opposes torture.

Asked if he was duped by the CIA, Caplan didn't answer. Instead, he looked me in the eye, gave a wan smile, raised his hands and shrugged his shoulders. I took that as a yes.

Munk doesn't buy it. "He doesn't act like an innocent person," Munk says. "He acts like he's covering for the CIA."

Munk says he's pursuing the case to publicize the CIA program and stop the use of torture.

And Munk adds that Caplan should have split with Bayard two years ago, when it became clear his client was a fake. "The CIA may even have a contract with him that prohibits him from revealing the kind of information that the bar is trying to get," Munk says.

In November 2004, the CIA had a problem. Reporters in Europe were publishing details of the agency's secret program to take terror suspects it captured in Europe, Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East to countries where torture wasn't outlawed. The reporters had hard information, including flight logs and airplane tail numbers.

Days after the story broke, an obscure Portland company called Bayard Foreign Marketing LLC bought one of the program's busiest planes from a company in Dedham, Mass., that reporters determined was a CIA front. The tail number of the Gulfstream V executive jet was changed, but it continued to make flights to countries like Egypt and Iraq after Bayard bought it.

The company's mailing address was the Portland office of Scott Caplan, who had filed the firm's articles of incorporation with the state the year before. Caplan says he charges $100 to $150 for that service.

It wasn't the first time the CIA has turned to Oregon firms to do its dirty work. McMinnville-based Evergreen International Aviation Inc. has long-standing ties to the agency and was used to fly the Shah of Iran out of Panama in 1980 when he faced extradition.

Moving terror suspects to secret prisons—dubbed "extraordinary rendition" by the Bush administration—was a complex operation that reporters and human rights workers say used a small fleet of civilian planes owned by CIA shell companies. Each company needed a registered agent in its home state to accept legal notices and file paperwork.

The CIA relied on local lawyers around the country for that job, says A.C. Thompson, co-author of the 2006 book Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights. He says somebody like Caplan fits the profile the CIA was looking for—low-profile lawyers from second-tier cities.

Some lawyers used by the CIA had ties to Washington and clearly knew who they were working for, says Thompson. For others, like Caplan, he says the connection is less clear. Caplan is the registered agent for 252 companies in Oregon, according to public records.

"He could have been caught up in it and not even know," Thompson says. "With someone who's doing tons of these, they may be acting as a sort of mill for people to create and maintain companies that are totally legitimate."

Most lawyers don't check clients' backgrounds if they simply want to set up a company, said Peter Jarvis, a Portland lawyer with expertise on legal ethics. He says Caplan was negligent only if he knowingly lied for his client or broke the law.

Five of Caplan's clients and two fellow lawyers contacted for this story gave him high marks as a lawyer and said they were surprised to hear he was involved in the Bayard mess.

"When I read the story, I thought, God, that seems weird," says John Kingery, an investment manager from Bend who uses Caplan as an authorized agent for several companies. "He just never struck me as a big wheeler-dealer."

Doug Blizzard, owner of Blizzard Motors in downtown Portland and a Caplan client for 10 years, calls him "one of those Norman Rockwell family types" and says there's no way he would knowingly get involved with the CIA.

"Let's say somebody we don't know walks in, [and] I sell a car to a terrorist," Blizzard says. "How the hell am I supposed to know?"

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.