Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

January 3, 2003

THAT "PORTLAND CONFIDENTIAL" series published in 2002 by the Portland Tribune ended as autumn's leaves were falling with this concluding headline, "Curtain falls on Portland vice probe." Trib scribe Phil Stanford noted, among other things, that "A laundry list of charges against Elkins was dismissed because of faulty indictments." Stanford was referring to underworld kingpin Big Jim Elkins. Stanford also reported that the ex-convict had been described in an earlier trial as a "criminal psychopath" by a psychiatrist who was a state's witness.

Stanford gleaned his knowledge of PDX vice of the 1940s, '50s and '60s from old newspaper stories and Oregon Historical Society files. But, as one who was covering, for the Oregonian newspaper, the Multnomah County Courthouse at l021 SW Fourth Ave. when the 1959 dismissal of Elkins' charges occurred, I suspected skulduggery. I was suspicious at first when, of all the black-robed judges available at the courthouse, the Elkins trial was assigned to one particular jurist. Two years earlier, when I was covering the night police beat for the Oregonian, a uniformed sergeant showed me this judge's business card with the judge's home phone written neatly in ink on the back. The card had been found in the possession of a burglary suspect in his early 20s. The sergeant told me he had checked the suspect's rap sheet and found that he'd been arrested a couple of times before but that the charges had been dismissed in court. The policeman wondered if there might be a homosexual relationship between the judge and the burglary suspect. At that time such a relationship was against Oregon law. The judge was an unmarried man in his late 60s who played bridge with some important citizens of the Rose City.

THE 1957 CONVERSATION with the police sergeant took place in the ground-floor press room of the old cop shop at "2 and Hardwood," to use an insider's term for the Portland Police Bureau Building whose main entry was on SW Oak St. near the corner of SW Second Ave. The press room was between the Central Precinct portion of the building and the Detective Division. There were two desks in the press room, one for the morning Oregonian's reporters and the other for the afternoon Oregon Journal's reporters. Except for Saturday night, the Journal did not staff the night police beat. Both papers published Sunday morning issues, with their first editions available on Saturday afternoon. The multi-story police building also housed the city jail and Municipal Court on its upper floors.

A prevalent rumor around the county courthouse in the weeks preceding the Elkins trial was that the Oregonian was paying the fee of the top-drawer attorney who was representing Elkins. The rumor-mongers reasoned that this was because the sleazy Elkins had provided Pulitzer Prize-winning information to the Oregonian about PDX gambling and other crimes including alleged payoffs and alleged criminal connections between police, the district attorney, other public officials and union leaders . Critics doubted Elkins' veracity.

I KNEW THE ATTORNEY representing Elkins and regarded him as a man of principle in addition to being a highly-talented lawyer who mostly did civil lawyering but took on an occasional criminal defense case. Although I suspected skulduggery in the assignment of the Elkins case to the same judge who was brought to my attention by the police sergeant two years earlier, I felt certain that Elkins' attorney was not involved. Also, I thought if the assignment of the case was pre-arranged that it was done not by the presiding judge but by someone in the court system's administrative office. I figured that with Elkins' connections he could have a third party make the contact and the payoff to get the case assigned to the judge suspected of being a homosexual. In view of the rumor about Elkins' attorney being paid by the Oregonian, I was not surprised when the attorney began providing me with carbon copies of his pre-trial motions filed with the court. I did not discuss the rumor with him or with the Oregonian's editors. Nor did I tell my editors of my suspicions about the judge because they were goosey, as in nervous, about me asking their approval to proceed with investigating corruption I had discovered at the courthouse. Their nervousness stemmed from the overtime expense of investigations in view of their experience with the Pulitzer stories plus the fact that the criminal Elkins' material had accomplished only the removal of a district attorney.

WHETHER THE JUDGE sent Elkins on his unfettered way due to the skill of the defense attorney or because of a threat to expose his alleged sexual orientation remain unanswered questions. If there were courthouse rumors on the subject, they did not reach my ears.

However, rumors about an earlier dismissal of a criminal indictment had reached my ears. That instance of the scales of justice possibly having been tilted with a wad of dough and a heavy thumb involved the operator of a small business who had been indicted as a "fence." A fence buys stolen goods from a burglar, a thief or a robber at a discounted price and disposes of the loot at a higher price. When sheriff's detectives went to arrest the suspect after a Multnomah County Grand Jury issued a criminal indictment, they invited me to accompany them. The invite was issued because I happened to be drinking coffee with them in a secluded corner of their office when an aide from the district attorney's office delivered the indictment. As stated earlier, I was the courthouse beat reporter for the Oregonian. I worked out of the courthouse pressroom where sat a desk, phone, typewriter, chair and filing cabinet for me, and the same furniture for the Journal reporter.

I WAS NOTIFIED by a county detective a few weeks later that a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge had dismissed the charge against the alleged fence for a "lack of evidence." The detective said there was a rumor that $10,000 had changed hands. After verifying the dismissal with a deputy DA, I turned in a brief news story to the city desk. I knew better than to inquire if the editors wanted the $10,000 rumor investigated, so I didn't mention it to them.

Several years after the dismissal of the charges against Elkins, the judge in the case was defeated when he ran for re-election. It is unusual for a sitting judge to be voted out of office, but it had happened before and it's happened since. If the challenger brought up the Elkins dismissal in his campaign, I was not aware of it. The election took place while the newspaper strike was going on.


IF WAYNE MORSE were still around, what would the acerbic-tongued United States senator from Oregon say about Mississippian Trent Lott's segregation-supporting utterances that greased his sudden slide from power?

Morse died in 1974 just short of 74 years old while trying for a comeback to the Senate seat he had lost in 1968 to Republican upstart Robert (Just call me Bob) Packwood. Morse, a former dean of the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene, had served in the Senate for 24 years. He started out as a Republican, then switched to Independent as a prelude to registering as a Democrat. Packwood, an East Portland Republican, had served in the Oregon House of Representatives for three terms before taking on "A Tiger in the Senate," as a book by that title called Morse. Packwood was helped in his campaign by a Democrat named Ben Padrow, a Portland State speech teacher who secretly prepped Packwood for a pivotal debate with Morse. Like Morse, Packwood was a lawyer. He'd been an assistant to the attorney who represented the New York-owned Oregonian in the 1959-65 strike against that Newhouse chain paper and the then-locally-owned Oregon Journal.

TRENT LOTT, 61, has been on Capitol Hill since 1972 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican, having switched from being a Democrat. He was elected to the Senate in 1988. He became Senate Republican majority leader in 1996, gave up that post in 2001 when Vermont Senator James Jeffords switched from Republican to Independent, giving control to the Democrats, but was to again be majority leader in 2003 after his party regained control in last November's elections. On Dec. 5, at a 100th birthday party for South Carolina's Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott said the U.S. would be better off if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 when he ran as a segregationist. After making a number of politically-motivated apologies for his remarks, Lott said on Dec. 20 that he had given up on again becoming the Republican majority leader in the new Senate.

Senator Morse could be scathing in his criticisms of senators and other political figures. For example, he once referred to a portly Republican senator from Indiana as "a rancid tub of lard." Lott isn't portly but Morse might have described him as "a suit-full of rancid racist lard."


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