Life Before Recall
The recall vote ended West’s 27-year political career, as well as removing him from a job he had described as a “lifetime dream.” He spent two decades in the Washington Legislature as a Republican representing districts in Spokane, including a one-year term as Senate Majority Leader. From the time he entered the House in 1983 until his departure from state politics in 2003, he was known for his fiery temper, his skill as a legislator, and his conservative views on social issues including abortion, teenage sex, and civil rights for gays and lesbians.
In 2000, West entered Spokane’s mayoral race and lost, but he held on to his seat in the state senate. In April 2003, while serving as majority leader in the Senate, West announced that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. He had surgery and returned to work a month later, while undergoing chemotherapy treatment. In August of 2003, he surprised his legislative colleagues by announcing that he again was entering the contest for the nonpartisan post of mayor in his hometown of Spokane. He won the election handily in November 2003 and began his term in January 2004.
The Story Breaks
During his first year in office, West faced city budget issues and a backlog of deferred maintenance projects, but even his critics agreed that he was generally an effective leader for the city. Then on May 5, 2005, the Spokesman-Review broke the story of a three-year investigation into West’s private life; the story had begun while the paper’s reporters were digging into the story of sexual abuse within Spokane’s Catholic Diocese.
The newspaper outed West as a closeted gay man who trolled the Internet for young men; as part of the package, the paper published transcripts from the Gay.com online chat room between West and a forensic computer expert hired by the newspaper who posed as an 18-year-old gay man known as Moto-Brock. The newspaper alleged that West had “used the trappings of the mayor's office to entice and influence young men he met on a gay Web site” (Morlin, Spokesman, May 5, 2005) by offering a city internship to Moto-Brock. Further, the story alleged that West had abused at least two young men during the late 1970s or early 1980s, when he worked as a sheriff’s deputy and volunteered with the Boy Scouts as a troop leader.
The mayor denied the charges of earlier abuse from the two men, characterizing them as “flat lies,” and the statute of limitations on such crimes would have long since passed. He did acknowledge that he had visited the online chat room and had relationships with adult men he met there. Some community leaders urged West to resign from office, while others expressed support. On May 6, the city attorney announced an outside investigation into West’s computer use while on the job.
Recalling a Mayor from Office
The newspaper reported the same day that the city council did not have the power to remove the mayor from office:
“Under the Spokane City Charter, a mayor can't be removed from office by the City Council in a manner similar to the way a president can be impeached. He or she can only be removed by a recall effort, which states a specific ‘act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance’ must be described on a petition prepared by a county prosecutor and reviewed for adequacy by a Superior Court judge. A recall petition must then contain signatures of registered city voters equal to 25 percent of the votes cast in the last mayoral election, which in Jim West's case would be 12,567 signatures” (Morlin and Steele, Spokesman, May 6, 2005).
Shannon Sullivan's Role
On May 9, Mayor West announced that he would take a leave from office in order to “gather his thoughts and prepare a defense” (Smith, Inlander, May 19, 2005). On the same day, a new name entered the story: Shannon Sullivan, a florist and single mother, filed a recall petition with the Spokane County auditor.
A few weeks later, West returned to work at City Hall. In addition to the city’s investigation of West’s computer use, the FBI seized his computer harddrive and began its own investigation. A poll conducted in early July by The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Spokane’s alternative newsweekly, and broadcast station KXLY showed that 78 percent of respondents believed the scandal surrounding West had damaged the reputation of the city.
Shannon Sullivan collected signatures for West’s recall throughout the summer; with no legal background, she took on West’s legal team and carried the recall petition through three levels of court review -- all the way to the State Supreme Court -- before finally getting approval for the special recall election held on December 6, 2005.A Newspaper's Undercover Sting
The Spokesman-Review’s editorial decision to hire a computer expert and conduct its own online undercover sting of the mayor -- and the decision to publish the resulting transcripts -- caused plenty of discussion both locally and nationally. During an interview with reporters from The Inlander and KXLY, West said of the Spokesman-Review, “I'm not going to speculate on what their agenda is, but they obviously have one.” Many in the journalism community criticized the newspaper’s undercover operation; on the other hand, the newspaper won an award for ethics in journalism for its coverage of the West story.
The West saga did not end with the recall election. In February 2006, the FBI announced that its nine-month investigation had found insufficient evidence to charge the former mayor with abusing his office to meet young gay men over the Internet. The investigation also produced no evidence of pedophilia or child pornography, according to federal officials.
Life After Recall
Following the FBI’s announcement, Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession stated that the city had no intention of seeking criminal charges against West. The outside consultant hired by the city council determined that West had violated city rules by using his city computer to offer gifts and internships to young men he had met online; however, since he was no longer a city employee after the recall, the finding became a moot point.
West stayed out of the media spotlight after being cleared of criminal allegations and further investigations. Through his attorney, he suggested that he was considering legal action against the Spokesman-Review, but no action has been filed to date.
West underwent additional treatments for cancer throughout the spring of 2006. He died on July 22, 2006, following complications from his last surgery. He was 55.