Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

May 16, 2003

NEARLY A HALF-CENTURY AGO, a man named Francis Lambert wore the badge of the sheriff of Multnomah County, the most populous of Oregon's 36 counties. He was such a clown as a cop that an investigative reporter for the strike-born Portland Reporter mockingly labeled him "The Sheriff of Parcheesi."

That derisive sobriquet, based on a board game's name, was a takeoff on the title of a popular television series called "The Sheriff of Cochise." Set in the Arizona county of that name, it was a contemporary cop show with lawmen using motorized horsepower to chase the bad guys instead of the old-fashioned thundering hooves.

Lambert, a conservative (and anti-union) Democrat, was appointed sheriff in 1957 by Multnomah County's three commissioners, also Democrats - Chairman Myron James (Mike) Gleason and his two cohorts, Al L. Brown and Jack Bain. The trio tapped Lambert to finish out the term of Sheriff Terry D. Schrunk, who'd been elected mayor of Portland. In the 1958 election Sheriff Lambert won a four-year term of his own.

UNTIL HIS APPOINTMENT, Lambert's knowledge of law enforcement had been limited to what he gleaned from watching "Dragnet" and similar dramas on television. His previous occupational experience had been in the fields of real estate and insurance. He bought and sold property, owned apartment buildings and had worked as a right-of-way agent for the State of Oregon, a job in which he obtained options for the purchase of land for highway projects. He harbored a yen to run for the office of state treasurer.

Lambert and I first crossed paths in late summer of 1958 when the Portland Oregonian newspaper's city desk moved me from being a general assignment reporter to being the county beat reporter. That job involved covering government, law enforcement, the judicial system and whatever else went on in the Multnomah County Courthouse at 1021 SW Fourth Ave. in downtown Portland, plus tracking down news in county offices in other buildings. I was based in the courthouse pressroom where the morning Oregonian and the evening Oregon Journal each had a desk, chair, typewriter, telephone and filing cabinet.

THE SHERIFF'S personal office was on the ground floor of the courthouse right next to a large office housing his civil deputies, who served court papers, and his tax collection division. The county police - his uniformed deputies and plain-clothes detectives - occupied space on the upper two floors of the eight-story courthouse, which had been built in 1913. The upper area also included a jail.

The first time I was in his inner sanctum I noticed that the walls were decorated with framed 8"x10" photographs of him and other people and that a couple of the other people were executives of the Oregonian. Many photos showed Lambert and his various buddies holding up fish they'd caught. I did not acknowledge to Lambert that I had noticed the photos or recognized any of the people in them and I never mentioned the photos to anyone at the Oregonian.

MANY OF LAMBERT'S DEPUTIES regarded him as a buffoon who knew nothing about being a sheriff; also a jerk who belittled them; and a petty tyrant who prohibited them from making extra money by "moonlighting" in their off-duty time. Lambert was a man in his 50s with salt and pepper hair and mustache to match. He delighted in wearing Western garb, including fancy cowboy boots. His attire elicited side-of-the-mouth snickers and sneers by rural sheriffs from both sides of the Columbia River at their meetings in Portland to discuss cases in which they all were involved. It was because of Lambert's penchant for dressing like a drugstore cowboy, coupled with his ineptness as a cop, that Larry McCarten of the Portland Reporter coined "The Sheriff of Parcheesi." That was in January 1962 when Larry and I were partners on an investigative reporting assignment.

IN LATE 1958, to make fun of his deputies, Lambert donned an academic mortarboard cap and summoned TV cameras to film him at a blackboard chalking up misspelled words he'd found in accident reports and investigative reports written by his deputies. Later, when Lambert issued his ban on off-duty jobs, in my story for the Oregonian I noted that Lambert himself moonlighted in real estate and insurance and in managing his apartment buildings. Without giving me the courtesy of a phone call to explain why, the editors at the Oregonian, pals and admirers of Lambert, deleted my references to his own extra-curricular money-making.

THESE SAME EDITORS kept stalling me when I asked for a green light to spend extra time on corruption I had become aware of at the courthouse. Some involved cronyism by the county commissioners, and some I discovered by reading through case files in Multnomah County Probate Court. When I'd tell the city desk of my discoveries and ask for the okay to spend some overtime on what would be a major project, after checking with the top editors the city desk's reply was:"Is the Journal aware of this?" When I'd reply "No," the city desk would say, "Then let's just watch it for a while."

The Oregonian's over-rated top executives were skittish about investigative stories because of their experience with the Pulitzer-winning stories in 1956 based on grudge-settling blatherings of a sleazebag underworld boss. The series cost a lot of money in overtime and legal fees and resulted only in the ouster of a Multnomah County district attorney. And, schlocky Sam Newhouse's obsession with the bottom line caused him to order that newsroom overtime be sharply curtailed.

IN AUGUST OF 1959 I had occasion to wonder if Sheriff Lambert's fishing buddies and other friends in Oregonian executive ranks might give me some static over a run-in I had with him. In a conversation in his personal office, I caught him lying in response to a question so I rebuked him and said that henceforth I would not use his name in any story for the Oregonian but would just write "the sheriff's office said ..." Either he didn't tell them I thought he was a liar or they decided to play a waiting game with me. I wasn't worried about missing out on any news release from Lambert because his self-serving pronouncements didn't amount to much. The real news came from the county police - the uniformed deputies and the detectives on the courthouse's top floors. I had a rapport with them, so much so that I regularly drank coffee with them in their offices.

ABOUT A MONTH after my run-in with the sheriff, I was typing a news story at my desk in the fourth-floor pressroom when he opened the door, stuck his head in and said, "Let's bury the hatchet." I replied, "Okay," and he left. Looking up from his own typing, the earlier-mentioned Larry McCarten, who then was the newly-assigned county beat reporter for the Oregon Journal, said to me: "I don't know what that was all about, but in the two weeks I've been here, I've already come to the conclusion that he's nuts." I explained to Larry what Lambert was talking about.

Some two months after that, at the start of their day shift at 5 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10, 1959, Stereotypers Local 49's members went on strike against the New York-owned Oregonian and the locally-owned Oregon Journal. Workers from the nearly a dozen other newspaper unions honored the picket lines. Some 850 men and women were involved in the dispute which the unions contended was provoked by Samuel I. Newhouse - the Park Avenue monopoly media millionaire who had bought the Oregonian in 1950 - so that he could buy the Journal. SIN, as we called him, needed a strike to provide a smokescreen behind which the troika of local trustees of the Journal could rationalize selling the Jackson Family newspaper to him. The last surviving Jacksons had said they did not want the Journal sold to Newhouse.

The strike provided "The Sheriff of Parcheesi" with opportunities to use his public office on behalf of his buddies in the Oregonian's management. As space runs out, it's time to say the story of "The Sheriff of Parcheesi" will be continued in the next issue of the Northwest Labor Press.


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