November 15, 2022
(ATLANTA) — James “Jim” West was a Republican mayor of Spokane, Washington, from 2003 to 2005. He lost his job thanks to a cast of characters, including a newspaper editor, a former FBI agent, and anonymity itself.
The story began before the internet and West’s mayorship. In the 1970s and 80s, there were waves of sexual abuse scandals in Spokane. Sheriffs, churches, and the Boy Scouts were all credibly accused of predation, particularly toward underage boys.
David Hahn, sheriff and Boy Scout leader, was accused of sexual abuse. Shortly after, he died by suicide. Hahn was a leader in the same Boy Scout troop as West.
Bill Morlin, a reporter with the Spokesman-Review, found this connection curious, maintaining suspicion that West must have known about Hahn and not reported him. This hunch was reignited when West was elected mayor in 2003.
An anonymous 20-year-old college student tipped off the Spokesman-Review that they had a sexual encounter with West after meeting through gay.com (an anonymous gay chatroom at the time, which now redirects to an LBGT resource center). West was confirmed to be using the usernames “RightBi-guy,” “Cobra82nd,” and “JMSElton.”
Stephen Smith, the editor of the Spokesman-Review, wanted this story to go forward. Morlin, however, felt it would be unethical for him to lie about his identity and bait West, though he did not feel it was unethical if the newspaper hired a consultant to run a sting. Smith hired a former FBI operator, Marcus Lawson, who agreed there was no way to be certain it was West online without an undercover operation.
Smith and Morlin suspected that West would be interested in trolling for younger boys, so they created a 17-year-old persona they named “Motobrock.”
They made contact with the mayor and talked often, but West didn’t say anything actionable. They decided to let Motobrock turn 18 to see if that would change the dynamic. It did.
West and Motobrock engaged in “online sex,” or what we would now call “sexting.” Additionally, West encouraged Motobrock to apply for a job, saying there was an unpaid city hall internship opportunity. Smith saw that as hard evidence of the mayor abusing his power in office.
The parties arranged for a meeting at a golf course, and the newspaper saw West waiting with a bucket of balls and took a picture.
What ensued was a local story turned national scandal — the Spokesman-Review ran the story and shocked the city. Soon after, the FBI began to investigate if West was guilty of abuse of office.
West stated, in no uncertain terms, that he would not resign. He did not apologize throughout the process, though he seemed broken inside. He was embarrassed to be a national punchline, and even further to be outed.
According to Ballotpedia, approximately 65% of voters voted in favor of the recall. It was the first time in city history that a sitting mayor was voted out of office.
In a conservative city like Spokane, the queer community was, and still is, stigmatized and marginalized. When a prominent figure is “outed” in the same breath as molestation accusations, homophobic hostility in the culture is made worse.
The FBI never found any evidence of any crime on the mayor’s part. Even if they had it wouldn’t have mattered much — West lost his battle with cancer only a few months later.
Morlin’s questionable assumption that the mayor must have known about Hahn’s alleged abuse sent the Spokesman-Review down a rabbit hole that eventually cost a city its reputation and a mayor his job.
What was gained? That question is harder to answer.
A mayor’s sexuality isn’t necessarily public domain, though it was hypocritical given his complacency and endorsement of his party’s anti-gay agenda.
Smith claimed no motivation to “out” West. He repeatedly stated his belief that West had been trolling for young boys to molest. But the sting never led to anything conclusive in that regard.
Instead, when they broke the story, they relied on Robert Galliher’s accusations of West.
Galliher was one of several children who alleged that Hahn sexually abused them in the late 70s. The original Spokesman-Review story was the first time Galliher publicly accused West of doing the same. Galliher never spoke to any media besides the Spokesman-Review.
Before the newspaper published the article, they confronted West about his interactions on gay.com. The audio recording from that meeting painted West as panicky and upset, but moreso about being outed than anything else.
The public has the right to know a lot. Additionally, the safety of a city, especially when it comes to potentially predatory public officials, is paramount. Even so, stories need to be sourced smartly. This one was not.
The Spokesman-Review had gathered so much valuable information, but they failed to verify essential details. They had a razor-thin argument that the mayor was abusing his power and, last minute, slapped on accusations from a controversial source.
They had no clear evidence of molestation, but they had evidence of a closeted mayor acting hypocritically. That might be newsworthy, but an “outing” is harmful beyond the trauma to the individual and has large-scale ramifications.
Ultimately, “anonymity” is the main character of this story. West was anonymous. The first tip was anonymous. The Spokesman-Review’s online inquiry was done anonymously.
West told the New York Times that the internet “allowed you to say things that you might not say otherwise because of that fantasy element, because of that anonymity element, because of the private element of it all,”
Without a place to be anonymous online, the story is nonexistent. Maybe West would have repressed his sexuality forever. Maybe he would have acted out more inappropriately if he had no outlet. Maybe the newspaper confronted him before his behavior escalated. Maybe there are still unknown victims out there who would have been spared if West could not be anonymous.
The anonymity turned out to be not only his downfall but the downfall of the entire story. A newspaper, through a “consultant,” legally, though not necessarily ethically, was able to “troll” for West. They had online sex with him, even if it was for investigative purposes.
Undercover work and anonymous sourcing are invaluable when it comes to journalism. In this case, the sense of urgency in a newsroom overtook the investigation and created a story more than it reported on one. In 2005, gay marriage was still illegal and homophobia was even more normative. West’s homosexual actions were salacious in and of themselves to the majority of the United States.
And with that, anonymity became the essence of the story. As a journalist, I am happy to engage with controversial methods, as long as they are done in the spirit of reporting facts, not imagining an unverified narrative.
For West, he is often remembered as a scandalous pervert, but because of irresponsible journalism, we’ll never be able to confirm or refute if he was one.