West will take leave of absence, prepare defense
Embattled Mayor James West said today he will take a leave of absence to defend himself against a newspaper's allegations of recent abuse...
The Associated Press
SPOKANE, Wash. — Embattled Mayor James West said today he will take a leave of absence to defend himself against a newspaper's allegations of recent abuse of office and decades-old child molestation.
An hour after West said he would leave his post "for a few weeks," The Spokesman-Review posted a new Web page story alleging the mayor offered city jobs to two young men he met through a gay Internet chatroom — and that one of them briefly accepted a city appointment.
The newspaper last week launched a series of articles about West after hiring a computer forensics expert who posed as an 18-year-old male high school student in Internet chats with West on Gay.com. West offered the "teen" a City Hall internship, tickets to professional sporting events and other gifts, the newspaper reported earlier.
Ryan M. Oelrich, an openly gay 24-year-old, said he accepted West's appointment to the city's Human Rights Commission after meeting West online at Gay.com, the newspaper said in a copyright story today.
Oelrich said he resigned from the commission in January after West "hounded me for months, telling me I was cute and asking me out on dates." Oelrich said he refused the mayor's advances, the newspaper reported.
Oelrich did not immediately return an Associated Press call for comment made to his home this evening.
The newspaper said another man, who is 25, told reporters West offered him a job as the city's human resources director.
"When I told him I wasn't qualified for that job, he told me I would be qualified if I was a friend of the mayor's," the unidentified man said. The newspaper said that man spoke on condition of anonymity.
City officials today were organizing an independent investigation into West's possible misuse of city computers. A tablet computer used by West was seized, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said today. City Attorney Mike Connelly said earlier the computer's contents had been "frozen."
Connelly did not immediately return an AP call for comment on the newspaper's latest allegations of job offers.
When he rejected the human resources job offer, the man said West offered him a job as aquatics director, overseeing operations at the city's swimming pools, the newspaper reported. The man didn't accept that job, either.
Oelrich told the newspaper he knows of "five or six other young gay men that Jim West has met online and offered City Hall jobs."
In his brief announcement today to the City Council, West said the allegations printed in The Spokesman-Review in recent days were false and that he would take his first vacation since taking office in January 2004 to prepare a response.
"I hope that you and the people will reserve judgment on me until the newspaper is done persecuting me and allow me to have the fair opportunity to respond to each of the allegations in due time," West said in brief remarks at the beginning of the council meeting.
He left without taking questions.
In the series it began publishing last Thursday, the S-R reported allegations that West had been accused of abusing two boys while he was a sheriff's deputy and Boy Scout leader in the late 1970s and early 1980s. West, a former Republican state Senate leader and staunch opponent of gay rights, denied those allegations, but subsequently acknowledged that he had visited a gay chatroom and had relations with adult men.
The statute of limitations has expired on the decades' old allegations and no criminal investigations were under way in connection with them, local law enforcement agencies said.
The articles resulted in a number of calls for West's resignation.
West, who vowed last week that he intended to serve the remaining 32 months of his term, said all the attention was distracting him from the business of this Eastern Washington city of 200,000.
"It is occupying a great deal of my time," said West, who gave up a two-decade career as a conservative state legislator to become mayor of his hometown.
West said Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch would lead the city.
City Council President Dennis Hession said West would continue to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the city through Lynch.
"Our conviction is that we will regroup and make sure we do not allow this to further distract us," Hession said. "We're very concerned about the reputation of the city. We want to move forward ... to shore up our reputation that may have been impacted by these allegations."
West addressed the council shortly after Spokane resident Shannon Sullivan filed paperwork with Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton to recall the mayor. If the petition's wording is approved by a judge, recall supporters would have to gather more than 12,500 signatures needed to place the issue on the ballot.
The newspaper reported earlier today that West told Editor Steven A. Smith that he expected more allegations of sex abuse to surface. Smith told reporters that West called him at home early Sunday to deny the paper's report that day that the mayor had masturbated in his City Hall office during online sex conversations.
Smith said he asked the mayor during the call if other men claiming to be abuse victims are likely to come forward. West said, "Probably so."
The Spokesman-Review and The Seattle Times have called for West's resignation, as has a national civil rights and gay advocacy organization, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, D.C.
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.