Portland hotelier Gordon Sondland taps 'crisis' spokesman
For more than a year, the national media relations consultant advising Portland hotelier-turned-impeachment-figure Gordon Sondland has been all but invisible.
But in the wake of a Nov. 27 article in which three women accused Sondland of sexual misconduct, Jim McCarthy of Washington, D.C.-based Counterpoint Strategies has taken on a more prominent role. He's now dealing personally with reporters, appearing on CNN, OPB and taking to social media to attack Portland Monthly magazine and ProPublica, a prominent investigative journalism nonprofit, as "underhanded" and "unethical" over their reporting on allegations by the three women.
Sondland denied the accusations. But despite Sondland's threat to sue for libel, both organizations stand by their reporting.
The client list of McCarthy's firm includes corporate trade groups and wealthy current and former executives. His representation of Sondland sheds light on high-level public relations tactics and strategy.
Son of a liberal newspaper columnist, McCarthy has developed a national reputation for pioneering new and aggressive methods of attacking the credibility of news coverage to advance his clients' interests and to influence public perception. McCarthy even played a role in media coverage of the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, representing one of Kavanaugh's former classmates as well as the prep school they attended, attacking press coverage and denying that a yearbook reference had bragged of sex.
"He was way ahead of the curve on this attacking-the-press stuff," said Seth Hettena, an investigative reporter and author who dealt with McCarthy and later wrote online about the public-relations professional's work. "It's an effective strategy."
McCarthy's tactics have been featured in Columbia Journalism Review as well as in public relations trade press coverage. Though he has used terms like "aggressive" and "take the gloves off" to describe himself in the past, he told the Tribune that to describe him as "aggressive" or "combative" would be "perjorative" — he prefers the terms "assertive" and "media accountability."
On Sondland's behalf, McCarthy is attacking not just the five reporters who reported and wrote the article, but the three women who said Sondland had made aggressive sexual advances.
Women step forward
According to the article, Portland Monthly owner Nicole Vogel said that when she asked Sondland to invest in her magazine in 2003, he invited her to see a hotel room of his, then hugged and tried to kiss her. He later put his hand on her mid-thigh, causing her to "clamp" down on his hand to stop it from moving.
In another allegation, insurance executive Jana Solis, whose former firm was employed by Sondland, said that he flirted with her, invited her to tour his personal art collection, then surprised her by taking his pants off. In a later conversation, she added, he was "all over" her, shoving his tongue down her throat, causing her to fall over a couch trying to get away.
Finally, former Portland City Hall aide Natalie Sept said that, in 2010, Sondland spoke to her and dangled a job with the state Office of Film & Television, where he chaired the advisory commission. At a restaurant, she said, he came on to her, and then tried to aggressively hug and kiss her.
All three said that, after they spurned Sondland, he retaliated: reversing his position on investing with Vogel; screaming at Solis in a phone call; and dropping all talk of a job to Sept, according to the article, which included accounts from friends, colleagues or family of the women who said they'd been informed of Sondland's behavior at the time.
In the wake of the article's release, McCarthy authored a response on Sondland's personal website, questioning why the women didn't come forward earlier, complaining Sondland had only "one-and-a-half business days" to respond to the specific allegations, and vowing to bring a lawsuit.
Sondland, in an accompanying statement, denied making sexual advances to the women or retaliating against them when they said "no." He said their allegations were "concocted and, I believe, coordinated for political purposes."
McCarthy took to Twitter, accusing the women accusing Sondland of "ulterior motives. "
In his CNN appearance, he accused Portland Monthly of a "brazen" conflict in that one of the accusers was the publication's owner and noted that two of the women were Democrats. He likened the article to "witness-tampering." He also complained that the reporters' request for comment only gave "24 hours" for comment. He also went on OPB's Think Out Loud program.
One of the women, Solis, initially remembered her encounter with Sondland as taking place in 2003 until Sondland's representatives told the reporters she'd worked with Sondland in 2008 — causing McCarthy to accuse her of "altering" her allegation.
In emails, executives of both ProPublica and Portland Monthly told the Tribune that, in reality, Sondland was given 62 hours to comment, and they accepted comments five hours past that deadline.
Marty Patail, editor-in-chief of Portland Monthly, added, "Here are the facts: three women are on the record recalling sexual misconduct by Ambassador Sondland and what they perceived as professional retaliation when they rebuffed him. We corroborated their accounts with friends, family and colleagues who were aware of the incidents at the time or soon after. Ambassador Sondland acknowledges interacting with the women during the general time periods and flatly denies any sexual misconduct or wrongdoing. Portland Monthly and ProPublica stand by our reporting."
Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, said, "I note that no one has questioned the accuracy of the facts we reported, beyond Ambassador Sondland's denials of each of his accusers' accounts of moments when they were concededly alone together — which denials are included in the story."
McCarthy's business exists for situations like this, specializing in "crisis communications." He's worked for corporate groups and executives, including Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist who later, as co-chair of the Republican National Committee, worked with Sondland. Sondland even invested in one of Broidy's companies.
McCarthy said he first was connected with Sondland before his confirmation proceedings as ambassador to the European Union. He won't say who connected them — other than to say it wasn't Broidy —and denied that there was any crisis involved in his initial work for the hotelier.
Early on Sondland's local lawyer, McDermott, handled most communications with Oregon reporters, but "I've been closely in touch and advising (Sondland) all throughout," McCarthy said.
Columbia Journalism Review wrote about McCarthy in an article titled "The shadowy war on the press: How the rich silence journalists." It described a video that McCarthy has used that portrayed journalists as wolf-like enemies, as well as a Counterpoint "brochure" that boasted of libel threats, saying "we have developed a formatted communique to news outlets. … We can stop hostile coverage in its tracks — before it is ever published or broadcast."
McCarthy, for his part, calls the brochure's pages "conceptual creative drafts from 10 years ago" that were never "publicly displayed" or used.
He says it would be inaccurate to say libel threats or lawsuits are among the tactics he uses to influence media coverage and public perception.
"We can't do that, we're not a law firm and we don't give clients legal advice," McCarthy said. "We're glad to help them think through the implications of a legal course of action, or the way that litigation will be covered in the press. And so often we are, as we are in this case, working alongside attorneys who are bringing those kinds of actions."
Tone has changed
Before Sondland testified in the impeachment inquiry into Trump, his public statements struck a nonpartisan tone, conveying a tone of independence and distancing himself from Trump. His wife, Katy Durant, acknowledged to the Tribune at the time that his early public statements sought to preserve the public's goodwill and mute a backlash against his hotels' employees.
"That's exactly right," she said.
The strategy now appears to have changed, with McCarthy portraying Sondland as a victim of a Democratic conspiracy and effectively accusing the women of lying. That has not played well in Portland, where two of the women, Vogel and Sept, are well-known and enjoy reputations with former colleagues as truthful people. After the article ran, Sept's former employer, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, called on Sondland to resign, saying of Sept "I have known her for almost 10 years. She is a person of complete integrity."
The editorial board of The Oregonian/OregonLive blasted Sondland's response, calling it a "weird combination of conspiracy theory, smear campaign and victim-blaming clichés."
Len Bergstein, a former lobbyist of Sondland's, said the new tone is not surprising. For many public figures in similar situations, "Their weapon of choice is to go after the accusers." He called it "pretty ugly, distasteful — but textbook."
Jim Moore, a goverment professor at Pacific University who heads the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement, said that considering Sondland's past political influence in Oregon, the new approach will have implications for his future if he chooses to return to Oregon's business and political circles: "Going after the accusers is not going to work out well for him in terms of getting any of that back."
McCarthy, for his part, does not agree that the new tone is intended for a different audience than earlier statements, or represents anything other than truth-telling. He said it merely is intended to "set the record straight … To my mind that's simply principled and shows a determination to do the right thing."
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