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Portland Businessman Will Cooperate With US House Impeachment Inquiry

UPDATE (9:05 a.m. PT) —  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back Tuesday against House investigators' requests to speak with Gordon Sondland and other diplomats. It's now unclear whether Sondland and other State Department officials will comply with the demand for depositions. 

Portland businessman Gordon Sondland, now a top U.S. diplomat in Europe, indicated Monday that he will cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry.

A Sondland representative said that he will answer questions from investigators, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Sondland is the owner of a Portland-based boutique hotel company, Provenance Hotels, and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Congressional investigators are interested in Sondland because he and another diplomat, Kurt Volker, talked to Ukrainian leaders about how to respond to pressure from Trump to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden.

The role played by the two was revealed last week in a whistleblower’s complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry into whether Trump used his official position to browbeat a foreign country into helping his re-election campaign.

The exact role played by Sondland in the Ukranian controversy has been a subject of intense speculation among political and diplomatic figures as well as those who know him from his high-profile business and political life back in the Northwest.

Daniel Fried, a former career foreign service officer who held several top posts in Europe, said Sondland has been regarded as a “serious person” who has been “trying to advance U.S. policy amid, let us say, the whirlwind that is Trump.”

David Nierenberg, a Camas, Washington, investor and friend of Sondland, said he sent an email to Sondland this weekend urging him to testify fully, even if it means acknowledging some mistakes.

He said the best outcome for Sondland is “that not only did he not do anything wrong, but he handles himself adroitly as a witness.”

The complaint from the anonymous whistleblower mentioned two key episodes involving Sondland and Volker, who had been the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine. Volker resigned his post last week after the complaint became public.

In May, the two met with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney. Giuliani had been pursuing contacts in Ukraine to find politically damaging information about Biden, whose son Hunter had been on the board of a natural gas company in the country.

According to the whistleblower’s complaint, Giuliani’s activities concerned several top U.S. officials, and Volker and Sondland talked with Giuliani “in an attempt to ‘contain the damage’ to U.S. national security.”

In July, Sondland and Volker were in Kiev – Ukraine’s capital – at the time of Trump’s now-famous phone call with that country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The complaint said that Sondland and Volker met with Zelensky and several aides after the call.

They “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelensky,” the complaint says.

Sondland was born in the United States after his parents escaped Nazi Germany. He became politically prominent in Portland and Seattle in the early 2000s after building a chain of boutique hotels that included such notable properties as the venerable Heathman in Portland.

He built political ties with officials of both political parties. In Portland he became good friends with then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who appointed him to the state’s board overseeing the state’s film and television office. His wife, Katy Durant, was appointed by Kulongoski to the Oregon Investment Council in 2005. She later chaired the council before stepping down in 2016.

Sondland also led a long but ultimately unsuccessful effort to stop construction of a publicly subsidized hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

Paige Richardson, a Portland political consultant who worked with Sondland on the convention hotel fight, said she came to admire his smarts and tenacity.

“He is not an ideologue, and he doesn’t come strictly out of any camp,” Richardson said, adding that her fellow Democratic activists don’t like to hear her say that.

In national politics, Sondland has been a longtime financial supporter of Republicans. He was close enough to the Bush family that he loaned some of his artwork to President George W. Bush for use in the White House.

In 2015, Sondland was an enthusiastic backer of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and held a fundraiser for him at his home in Portland’s West Hills.

After Trump won the GOP nomination, Sondland signed up to help sponsor a Trump fundraiser. But after the invitation became public, he backed away from the event. A Sondland spokeswoman told The Oregonian at the time that Sondland and another top executive in his hotel chain shared concerns about Trump’s criticism of Khizr Kahn, who spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention about his son, a U.S. Army captain who died in combat.

However, after Trump’s election, Sondland gave $1 million through four of his companies to the Trump inaugural fund. That contribution, widely seen as a bid for an ambassadorship, paid off when he became the chief diplomat to the European Union in 2018.

According to Fried, the veteran diplomat, Sondland was an energetic ambassador who has been “advancing a more constructive version of the administration’s policy” toward Europe.

In an interview with Politico on Sept. 15, Sondland expressed confidence that Europeans were beginning to realize that they had to reset trade policies with the United States instead of just waiting Trump out.

Sondland added that he hoped that Europeans would come to see a different side of Trump.

“He’s a hell of a lot of fun,” Sondland said.

It’s unclear now what will happen to Sondland’s standing in the Trump administration – or his public reputation. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the leaders of the impeachment inquiry said they wanted to depose Sondland on Oct. 10.

Nierenberg, a longtime Republican supporter who publicly opposed Trump in the 2016 election, said he thought Sondland had long eyed the idea of an ambassadorship.

“The sad thing,” Nierenberg added, “given the behavior of this president, particularly the atrocious way that he treats his teammates is: Be careful what you wish for.”

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.