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Portland hotelier who became Trump Ukraine envoy is no villain, family and friends say

COURTESY PHOTO: UATV - Gordon Sondland is scheduled to testify Thursday in the impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump. Fellow diplomats and text messages indicate he was a major figure in a scheme to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.As Portland hotelier Gordon Sondland makes plans to testify Thursday before congressional committees preparing for the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump, his wife of 26 years, Katy Durant, has a simple plea for Oregonians:

Listen to what Sondland says Thursday before you consign him to the ranks of villainy. Judge him based on what happens, rather than what you think will happen.

"He's not guilty of anything," Durant, a longtime Democrat, told the Portland Tribune. "Just allow the time to go by and allow him to testify the right way."

On Oct. 3, a text exchange including Sondland went public, providing new details of a pressure campaign on Ukraine that critics decried as an arms-for-campaign-favors swap. Since then, Sondland has been buffeted by media coverage, much of it likening him to Trump, who last year appointed the hotel magnate to be ambassador to the European Union. PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Activists rallied Sunday at the Heathman Hotel, where they urged co-owner Gordon Sondland to testify truthfully in the Trump impeachment inquiry.

Before Sondland agreed to testify, Rep. Earl Blumenauer called for a boycott of Sondland's hotels. Trump critics have called his employees and said hateful things to them, even as people on social media accused him — falsely, it turns out — of scrubbing his photos from corporate websites to avoid impeachment blowback.

On Sunday, protesters marched outside his Portland hotels with signs bearing his name, chanting "Tell the truth!"

"It seems pretty clear that he's implicated in Trump's crimes," said one protest organizer, Kate Sharaf, before the demonstration.

Sondland has more than a few apparent similarities to Trump — the Pacific Northwesterner is rich, can be brusque, runs hotels, loves to make deals, plays hardball, has been accused of dodging taxes, and has made money off gambling.

But Sondland is not Trump, nor is he the superficial character he's been portrayed to be, according to Durant and other Sondland friends.

"It's easy to portray Gordon like that, and we get it. It's really easy to take shots at successful people," said Durant, who served more than a decade on the Oregon Investment Council after being tapped for the post by then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. "And it's easier to think of people as one-dimensional characters than multidimensional."

So who is Gordon Sondland, and are there any clues to what we should expect from him on Thursday?

A close look turns up some relevant nuggets:

•On Sondland's upbringing: His grandfather was a Russian citizen who chose to stay in Germany after being released from a World War I prisoner-of-war camp. Sondland's father was born in disputed territory, so his birth certificate was written in two languages, German and Polish.

Sondland's parents, both Jewish, escaped Nazi Germany before World War II by very different routes. Sondland's mother, Frieda, fled to Montevideo, Uruguay, while already pregnant with Sondland's older sister.

His father, Gunther, bypassed a lack of papers by hiding in a vegetable bin on a ship to get to France, then was conscripted into the French Foreign Legion — after which he joined the British Army.

Gunther made his way to Uruguay after the war, and the family moved to Seattle in 1953. The couple took a community college course in dry cleaning and rented space for a shop. Sondland was born in 1957, 18 years after his sister, and she was almost a second mother to him since both parents worked long hours.

"He was a pretty good boy," his older sister, Lucy Pruzan, told the Tribune. "He did some wonderful volunteer work ... He worked hard, always. Because he needed to."

• On Sondland's rise in business: Whereas Trump's father was a wealthy developer, Sondland's parents were barely middle-class. His older sister's husband had come up through the family cable TV supply business and became a real estate investor and businessman.

Sondland went into commercial real estate. In his late 20s, when he learned of a Seattle hotel in bankruptcy in 1985, his family and friends helped him scrape together the money to buy it.

Sondland began buying and selling hotels and made other investments. In 1991, Sondland met Durant, a real estate broker. They were married two years later. Sondland continued his real estate pursuits in Portland, and the couple raised their kids here.

Durant already was successful in business, and the two essentially formed a business partnership as well as a family, with her playing a major role in Provenance Hotels and other investments.

He owned a commercial strip leased to a dozen lottery businesses, dubbed "lottery row" on Hayden Island. Years ago, before lottery rules prohibited areas of such concentrated gambling, it was described as a decentralized casino.

Asked what words describe Sondland, his longtime friend, Jim Fitzhenry, said, "Focused. Smart. Ambitious."

• On Sondland's politics: Where his older sister leaned Democrat, Sondland became a lifelong Republican. He's contributed to moderate Democrats in Oregon, like former governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber, as well as Mayor Ted Wheeler. He's also contributed to moderate Republicans such as gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler and presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

In contrast to Trump's rhetoric about immigration and close ties to conservative Christians, Sondland has surrounded himself with immigrants, including the Syrian-born president of Provenance Hotels, Bashar Wali, and made close friends in Portland's gay community.

"He is not an ideologue," said Sondland's longtime friend, Jamsheed "Jim" Ameri, an Iranian-born businessman who says he's like a godfather to Sondland's children. "He's very pragmatic."

Bob Ball, a longtime Sondland friend, cites Sondland's past giving to the Cascade AIDS Project, New Avenues for Youth, and other causes, as well as Provenance Hotels' status as a major sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates on LGBTQ issues.

Real estate developer Robert Ball, who was an active supporter of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, has traveled with Sondland and said he and his husband, Grant, are frequent guests at Sondland's Christmas and birthday parties despite being a couple of liberal "gay Democrats."

When the two men lost their son, Wyatt, six years ago, Sondland immediately came to Ball's office to check on him, and then attended the memorial service.

"He's not biased," Ball said. "He cares."

• On Sondland's family values: Whereas much has been made of Trump's many marriages and reputedly distant relationship with some of his children, Sondland has placed his family front and center. A video on his ambassador website focuses on his two children and Durant. "My family is the most important thing to me," Sondland said.

Ameri, his friend, said Sondland never missed a play, concert or other event that his kids were involved in growing up. "He's a great family guy," Ameri said.

Sondland remains close to Pruzan, the sister who helped raise him, as well as her husband, who invested in his early projects. Both are longtime Democrats and supporters of Joe Biden, contributing a combined $5,600 to his presidential campaign in June.

"He's been a wonderful, loyal brother to me," Pruzan said, adding with a laugh that "We try not to talk politics ... Never in a million years did I think my brother would be in this situation."

• On Sondland's taxes: As a doting father raising two children in Portland with his wife, and helping run six hotels while engaging in other developments and other deals, while sitting on various time-consuming Portland nonprofit boards over the years, some question how it is that Sondland has never lived in Oregon — on his tax returns.

He instead has maintained an address in Seattle in a penthouse at one of his hotels, that he uses for tax purposes. And Washington has no income tax.

"Interestingly, he doesn't have much of a footprint in Seattle," his friend Ameri, said, adding that because of his wife, Sondland "became very Portland-oriented."

In 2005, Sondland explained to Willamette Week how he could raise kids and seemingly live in Oregon while doing business in Portland, even registering his car there, but purport to live in Seattle: "We have a place up there, we have business investments up there, my mother still lives there, my sister lives there. I mean, I never left."

Bill Parish, an Oregon investment advisor who's tracked Sondland's business efforts, calls the Seattle residency claim 'ridiculous.'

Durant defends Sondland's tax address in Seattle, saying he stays in both places. She acknowledged that because Washington has no income tax, Sondland avoids having to pay taxes on income earned elsewhere, such as his hotels in Washington, Louisiana and Tennessee. But under Oregon law, he still has to pay taxes on wages earned in Oregon. She said he does pay some state taxes, just not as much as if he were an Oregon resident.

"The implication has always been that he doesn't pay taxes," Durant said. "But it's not factually correct."

• On Sondland's personality: Sondland's friends say he's very blunt and has a sense of humor.

"He's always cracking jokes," Ameri said.

Fitzhenry said he doesn't know anything about Sondland's current situation, but said, "He's loyal to people by nature and would not knowingly do anything wrong."

"He's a tough businessman," Durant said. "He is outspoken. He's very direct. But also he'd give you the shirt off his back. I mean, he gives you his time, he gives his money. He loves to solve problems. And it doesn't matter what kind it is."

Durant said Sondland is not taking the stress of his current situation well. "He really cares about his employees, and he's sick that serving his country is potentially damaging the lives of others."

• On his love of deals and charity: Ball said Sondland loves to be in the mix of "solving problems and making it a better place."

Durant said her husband's love of deals helps explain why he's given a lot of money to charitable causes over the years, often in ways designed to spark other giving or for specific purposes. As chair of the Oregon Film and Television Commission, he hobnobbed with celebrities like Carrie Brownstein and Ed Asner, and used to fly Kulongoski on his jet down to Hollywood to try to lure big movies to Oregon.

"He likes to do deals, and he likes to help, and he's a business guy. So for him, kind of everything's a deal," Durant said, citing his work on the film commission. "But it's not a deal necessarily for him to put (money) in his own pocket."

She cites the time she paid off the medical bill of a mother of two she encountered in a doctor's waiting room, inspiring Sondland to endow a fund at Oregon Health & Science University to help others in similar straits.

She said once Sondland learned of a disabled woman facing foreclosure while caring for her terminally ill husband, and bought the house out of foreclosure.

There's also his endowment of a fund at the Portland Art Museum to share his love of art, by making admission free for kids under 18.

But when it comes to business deals and competitors, he's willing to play hardball. Sondland used scorched-earth litigation to help block the Metro regional government's push for a convention center hotel for a decade. Eventually, he settled when Metro offered him a plot of land to make him go away.

• On his political sense: "Gordon is into politics. I mean, that is his sport," Durant said, when asked why Sondland had sought to be an ambassador. "He's always been interested in politics and really being a behind-the-scenes guy."

In the past, Sondland has also been sensitive to public pressure. He moved in to hire security when police made an issue out of crime at lottery row. He dropped a plan to bring in a strip club there after it drew media attention. He withdrew from a Trump fundraiser during the presidential campaign, only to later secretly contribute $1 million through four companies he controlled, in apparent pursuit of an ambassadorship.

•On Sondland's spat with Blumenauer: After years spent ingratiating himself with elected officials, Sondland found himself in a different place recently when Provenance Hotels filed a complaint against Rep. Earl Blumenauer, accusing the Congressman of breaking House ethics rules by using Twitter to call for a boycott of Sondland hotels.

The tweet unleashed a wave of hate against them and their employees, Durant said, and amounted to "mining the harbor" against an Oregon company that has "been an important community player."

She notes that two years ago, Congressional Republicans' suggestion of a boycott of Patagonia, echoed by a Trump official, caused progressive lawyers to characterize the attacks as a possible House rule violation and an abuse of power. At the time, former federal ethics czar Walter Shaub called it "thuggish intererence" and "bizarre and dangerous."

• On what Sondland may say on Thursday: "I think he understands that it's very important that he tells the truth as he knows it," said his sister, Pruzan. "I trust that he will do the right thing, and I hope he will."

"He's a good boy," she added with a chuckle. "It's a very difficult situation."

His wife says much the same thing. "He's going to be truthful before Congress," Durant said. "The problem is people won't believe it because maybe he won't say what they want him to say. "

• On Sondland's public relations approach: Unlike other prominent figures in previous Trump controversies, Sondland has sought to create distance from Trump, saying in public statements that he's always wanted to testify despite a directive from the Trump administration not to — and now that he's received a subpoena requiring it, he will.

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Sondland intends to disavow a text message he wrote after an investigation had been launched into the Ukraine intrigue, in which Sondland denied a quid pro quo. The Post reported that instead, Sondland will say Trump told him that.

Meanwhile, witness after witness are providing new details to Congress and reportedly pointing fingers at Sondland, meaning any effort to conceal the truth might not just disappoint the family members who raised him, it could have legal consequences as well.

Is Sondland, under tremendous public pressure, feeling concern about how his friends and family view him, or about his business?

Len Bergstein, a Portland lobbyist who has represented Sondland in the past, doubts he's driven by concerns about his business.

"He's elevated himself into a position of stature in the community. Most people that I know who've done that are concerned about their own reputation and want to write their own narrative about who they are," he said. "I'm sure he wouldn't like to think of himself as being the villain in this piece."

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