Multiple Women Recall Sexual Misconduct and Retaliation by Gordon Sondland

“So he’s like, ‘Well, I just thought we could have some fun, but you know, it’s cool.’”

United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies before the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in Washington D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, November 20, 2019. Stefani Reynolds/ZUMA

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Three women say they faced sexual misconduct by Gordon Sondland before he was the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and at the center of the presidential impeachment inquiry. They say he retaliated against them professionally after they rejected his advances.

In one case, a potential business partner recalls that Sondland took her to tour a room in a hotel he owns, only to then grab her face and try to kiss her. After she rejected him, Sondland backtracked on investing in her business.

Another woman, a work associate at the time, says Sondland exposed himself to her during a business interaction. She also recalls falling over the back of a couch trying to get away from him. After she made her lack of interest clear, she says Sondland called her, screaming about her job performance.

A third woman, 27 years Sondland’s junior, met him to discuss a potential job. She says he pushed himself against her and kissed her. She shoved him away. She says his job help stopped.

All three women have agreed to be named in this story. In all the cases, friends, family members or colleagues of the women recall being told about the encounters at the time. The cases span a seven-year period, ending less than a decade ago. Sondland denies the allegations.

“In decades of my career in business and civic affairs, my conduct can be affirmed by hundreds of employees and colleagues with whom I have worked in countless circumstances,” Sondland said in a statement. “These untrue claims of unwanted touching and kissing are concocted and, I believe, coordinated for political purposes. They have no basis in fact, and I categorically deny them.” (Read his statement.)

Sondland’s lawyer added in a letter: “Notably, what each of these three women share in common is that they pursued Ambassador Sondland for financial and personal gain — an investment, a job, and insurance brokerage work — and he declined their proposals.”

The lawyer, Jim McDermott, also wrote that the three women are trying to undermine Sondland’s latest testimony. “Given the timing of your intended story, a reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that you are attempting to affect Ambassador Sondland’s credibility as a fact witness in the pending impeachment inquiry,” McDermott wrote. “Given the politically charged climate in which current events are unfolding, some might consider this to be veiled witness tampering.”

Reporting on this story began in October, around the time of Sondland’s initial impeachment testimony, in which he backed the president’s assertion that there was no quid pro quo involving Ukraine.

The day after Sondland gave that testimony, Nicole Vogel spoke at the Day of the Girl Luncheon in Seattle, an event hosted by a regional nonprofit, Girls Inc., whose mission is to inspire “all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.” Vogel decided to recount her Sondland story and name him.

Vogel also mentioned it to an editor at Portland Monthly, the co-publisher of this story, and she later spoke about it again at a breakfast event in Portland.

[Editor’s note: Vogel is the owner of Portland Monthly. Vogel cooperated with the story as a source. She was not involved in editorial decisions. The magazine’s editorial team decided to partner with ProPublica to independently report her story.]

“There were a lot of indecent proposals when I was raising capital, but none as brazen as his,” Vogel recalls. She encountered Sondland 16 years ago when she was trying to raise money to start her magazine. “I have nothing to say about what he did or didn’t do [involving Ukraine]. But if people are asking what his moral character is, I have one more piece of evidence for them.”

The women had kept their stories to their own circles, even after Sondland was nominated and vetted for an ambassadorship by a president who himself has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women. The women say they were not contacted by the government for any background checks.

In 2003, Vogel had an idea to start a magazine with her journalist brother that would chronicle Portland’s exploding art, culture and food scenes. She was 34 years old and fresh off a job at Move.com. Armed with full mock-ups of the magazine and detailed financial projections, the search for investors led her to Sondland.

Sondland has long been a power player in Portland, where he is one of the region’s most prominent business figures. He owns five hotels in Portland under the umbrella of the company he founded, Provenance Hotel Group. He was once asked at a panel why he got into the business. “It combines all the elements that give me a reason to get up in the morning,” Sondland said. “You have food, you have wine, you have design, you have art, you have intrigue, you have sex. You have everything you can think of.”

Sondland is also a prominent philanthropist. He has served on several high-profile nonprofit boards, including as the chairman of the board of trustees of the Portland Art Museum. A prominent staircase there bears his name and that of his wife, Katherine Durant.

According to Vogel, Sondland was helpful, connecting her with potential advertisers and investors. Then, in the spring of 2003, he invited her to dinner at El Gaucho, a clubby, old-school steakhouse, requesting information on the business’s projected financials. Over dinner, he told her that he would invest his own money in the magazine, and that Portland needed people like her.

“Gordon had said that night that he was going to invest,” Vogel recalls. “And in fact, he said to me that he was interested in investing in the company, but that he was more interested in investing in me, because he felt as if Portland didn’t keep people of high ambition and talent.”

After dinner, Vogel remembers Sondland proposing a walk across the street to Hotel Lucia, which Provenance had acquired two years before and filled with splashy art. Vogel says he introduced her to staff on the first floor — the concierge, the doorman, the front desk attendants — before suggesting that she might want to see one of the rooms.

In Vogel’s memory, the room was small and mundane, but she made admiring comments before turning to open the door and let herself out when Sondland’s voice stopped her.

“I remember seeing my hand drop from the door handle,” she says. “I turned around, and he’s standing right behind me, and he says, ‘Can I just have a hug first?’”

So she did the only thing she could think of to ensure a safe exit, giving him a hearty-back-pat-we’re-all-friends-here hug.

“And as I pulled back, he grabs my face and goes to kiss me.”

Vogel deflected the kiss and brought out a well-practiced line, designed, she says, to preserve his ego: “I said, ‘Ooh Gordon, you’re a married man, and you’d just break my heart.’” She left through the hotel lobby, making sure to say goodbye to everyone she’d been introduced to, so they’d all remember that she hadn’t been upstairs for more than a few minutes.

Shortly after, Vogel’s records show, Sondland emailed her requesting a financial analysis for her business plan. He included a brief aside: “Sorry I was such a dud.”

Afterward, Vogel confided in a friend, Craig Sweitzer, and her sister, both of whom confirmed her account. “I think she was just exhausted,” Lorrie Vogel says. “All you’re trying to do is raise funding for something, and you’re appalled that people would use their power to try and take advantage of you.”

Sondland and Vogel had a second lunch on the calendar for a few weeks later to hammer out details of the investment. Vogel says she decided to keep the appointment, hoping the encounter at the Lucia had been a momentary lapse in judgment.

Vogel and Sondland had offices in the same neighborhood, Portland’s trendy Pearl District, which is full of warehouses-turned-galleries, shops and many restaurants. Instead of going to lunch there, Vogel recalls Sondland showed up in a vintage convertible and drove them to an out-of-the-way restaurant 8 miles away, across two rivers.

Vogel remembers little of the meal itself, but she recalls the drive back well. She says Sondland placed his hand on her midthigh and left it there for 10 or so minutes. She clamped her own hand on top of his so he couldn’t move it any farther up her thigh. They spent the rest of the ride in silence.

“God, I would love to have told him to shove it. To have kneed him in the balls,” she says. “But I didn’t do that. It was precarious.” She knew that having her fledgling magazine in Sondland’s hotel rooms, reaching thousands of guests, would boost readership numbers and ad rates.

Then, just days before she was due to close her first round of financing, Sondland sent an email, changing the terms on his investment.

“Nicole,” Sondland’s email began. “After further reflection on this opportunity, I have come to the definite conclusion that this will be a ‘labor of love’ investment, at least at the beginning. In checking further, I have determined that the Lucia cannot participate under your very creative structure.”

Sondland’s lawyer disputes that the turnabout was motivated by anything other than business. “A decision not to invest cannot fairly be characterized as retaliation,” McDermott wrote. “Ambassador Sondland, in fact, conducted lengthy due diligence about Ms. Vogel’s investment proposal that included enlisting analyses from other regional publishers, before deciding not to invest.”

Vogel says that Sondland had been planning to put in at least $25,000, her minimum required investment. That money would have allowed Vogel to reach her business plan’s goal of $300,000. Instead, Sondland said in the email that he would commit to $10,000 and would only do so if Vogel raised an extra $100,000.

Vogel says she ended up emptying her own bank account to make up for Sondland’s reversal, and the magazine went forward without him. Today, she runs magazines in six states.

In his letter denying the women’s accounts, Sondland’s lawyer wrote:

As you are doubtless aware, one of the three complainants, Nicole Vogel, is the owner and publisher of the Portland Monthly. She and her publication stand to benefit directly from publishing these allegations, and Ms. Vogel’s delay in bringing these forward — even as Ambassador Sondland was undergoing public scrutiny by Congress as part of his confirmation in 2018 — casts grave doubt on her credibility. Indeed, we understand that Portland Monthly is under significant financial pressure and Ms. Vogel’s efforts seem designed to salvage it.

Vogel says the only reason she has shared her story is because “it feels like the right thing to do.” Vogel adds that she “can’t imagine a scenario where there is a financial benefit to Portland Monthly from this story.” The magazine, which Vogel says has been profitable this year, was long placed in rooms in Sondland’s hotels in both Portland and Seattle. Vogel says she decided last week to stop placing the magazines there. Halting that arrangement hurts the magazine’s reach, says the magazine’s publisher.

Sondland’s attorney also wrote:

You should know that Ms. Vogel is a close associate of Rep. Earl Blumenauer who has maligned Ambassador Sondland and threatened his company, misconduct that is now the subject of a Congressional Ethics Office complaint. Congressman Blumenauer is also a vocal critic of the Trump Administration.

Vogel says she has no relationship with the congressman. Blumenauer did occasionally contribute to the magazine, which is cited on one of Vogel’s pages on the website. The ethics complaint was filed by Provenance in response to Blumenauer calling for a boycott of Sondland’s company. The congressman did this after Sondland initially declined to testify in the impeachment inquiry. When Sondland did ultimately testify publicly, undercutting the president’s defense, Blumenauer praised him.

Jana Solis met Sondland in 2008. Solis, who went by Janice Schnabel at the time, worked as a hospitality safety engineer for New York City-based insurance giant Marsh & McLennan, creating risk management plans and evaluating the safety of restaurants and hotels. The executive also sometimes pitched clients to sign with the company. (Solis initially misremembered the year she met Sondland as 2003 or 2004. She reviewed her records after Sondland’s lawyer noted that Marsh’s work with Provenance started in 2008.)

Knowing that Solis had experience in the hotel industry, a colleague asked her to take a meeting with Sondland, a lunch at Pazzo Ristorante, the Italian mainstay at what was then the Hotel Vintage Plaza.

“He was flirting through the lunch, and ends up just saying, ‘OK, I’ve heard enough,’” Solis remembers. “‘You’re hired. Congratulations. You’re my new hotel chick.’”

Then, on the way out, Solis recalls that Sondland suddenly “slap[ped] me on the ass and said, ‘I look forward to working with you.’”

Sondland’s lawyer wrote that Sondland rejects that account: “Ambassador Sondland denies slapping Ms. Solis on the rear end.”

Next, Sondland requested she visit his home, so that she could evaluate his personal art collection. Solis wasn’t trained in art valuations, but she agreed to go to his home, she says, to keep the business account intact. She was tough, she figured, after years spent working in industries like manufacturing.

The two toured Sondland’s home in Portland’s exclusive West Hills, Solis making notes about the artwork as the hotelier showed off pictures of himself with then-President George W. Bush and Bush’s dog. And then, she recalls, he told her there was even more of his collection to see in the pool house. She’d meet him there, she said, excusing herself both to go to the bathroom and map out a potential exit strategy.

“I get out to the pool house, and he is now naked from the waist down,” Solis remembers. “He said something about, ‘I thought we could chat.’ And I said something, trying to keep his ego intact — not that he needed that, not that it wouldn’t have been anyway — I said something like, ‘I can’t have that conversation.’”

Solis remembers apologizing, saying she was sorry if she’d given Sondland the wrong impression. She wanted to preserve the business relationship and not jeopardize her senior position at a job she loved. Also, he was her ride home: “I thought, ‘I need to keep myself intact and get out,’” she recalls. “So that’s what you do, apologize.”

“So he’s like, ‘Well, I just thought we could have some fun, but you know, it’s cool.’”

Sondland put his pants back on. Then he drove her back to downtown Portland, but not before, in Solis’ memory, he made one more request: “Can I have a hug?”

It wasn’t Solis’ last encounter with Sondland. A few months later, she was tasked with inspecting and holding staff training sessions at his hotel properties, including the Roosevelt Hotel in Seattle (now renamed the Hotel Theodore), where Sondland keeps a penthouse apartment.

“And the last day I was there doing the training, he said, ‘I need you to see the penthouse as well.’” She didn’t know it was his private living quarters.

“So I’m acting very professional, and I’m going over some of the things I think he needs to deal with [as part of my inspection] and just trying to stay down that road. [He says:] ‘Have a drink. Thanks for all you’ve done this week.’”

Solis remembers sitting on the couch with him, having a glass of wine and hoping as hard as she could — praying — that it would go no further.

“The next thing I know, he’s all over me,” she recalls. “He’s on top of me. He’s kissing me, shoving his tongue down my throat. And I’m trying to wiggle out from under him, and the next thing you know, I’m sort of rising up to get away from him, and I fall over the back of the couch.”

She remembers suddenly finding herself on the floor. “And I’m like: ‘Gordon, I’m not sure what else to say. You know, I really, really want to do business with you, but I’m not sure we can. I don’t know what your issues are, but I am telling you, I cannot make them mine.’”

Sondland’s lawyer says the ambassador denies that happened. “Ambassador Sondland also denies exposing himself to her or forcibly kissing her,” he wrote. “We have been able to review Provenance’s records interacting with Ms. Solis’s company, and at no time did she or her employer convey any concern about Ambassador Sondland, his comportment, or the nature of any business dealings he had with them or their personnel.”

Solis’ former husband, Kevin Schnabel, recalls Solis was upset when she arrived home from that trip. “One of the things that always stuck in my head is her comment that he literally had his tongue down [her] throat, [and as she was] trying to get away from him she had fallen over the back of the couch,” Schnabel remembers. Solis also told Schnabel her recollection of what happened in the pool house.

A few days later, Solis was back in her office, working late, when the phone rang. She recalls Sondland was on the other end, screaming at her over insurance issues tangential to her job. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t about insurance. He was pissed. He didn’t get his way [with me], and he was making it about work,” she says. “And he was making it all my fault.”

Alone at her desk, Solis started to sob. She says a colleague found her there; he’d heard Sondland’s screams on the speakerphone from his office. The colleague, who declined to be named, says he saw the incident. She “became emotional,” he says, “and concerned about what Marsh would think if [she] lost the account over the matter.”

It was the last time Solis ever spoke with Sondland. Solis left the account. Provenance is currently a client of Marsh. Today, she still works in the insurance industry and often travels the country as a speaker and leader in her industry.

Sondland’s lawyer provided an email that one of Solis’ colleagues at her current firm sent to Provenance in 2016 pitching them on business. The colleague wrote that he had been referred by Solis.

Solis says she didn’t know about the email. “You didn’t see me on the signature block, nor did you see me copied on it,” she says. “I certainly wouldn’t have directed him to Provenance and, at a minimum, certainly would not have said ‘use my name when you’re talking to Gordon.’ That’s a complete recipe for disaster.”

The third woman who says she faced sexual misconduct by Sondland is Natalie Sept. In 2008, Sept moved home to Portland after a post-college job teaching in the Chicago suburbs. Sept had always been interested in politics and eventually connected with Portland City Council member Nick Fish, who was running for reelection and needed a fundraiser. He hired Sept, whose role eventually expanded to campaign manager.

After Fish won his 2010 election in a landslide, Sept had breakfast with him at the restaurant of the Heathman Hotel (Provenance would add the hotel to its portfolio in 2017), a frequent watering hole for Portland’s political class. Sondland, who had donated to Fish, was at a nearby table.

Sept remembers that her boss introduced her to Sondland and said: “‘This is Natalie. She’s a rising star.’” Intrigued, Sondland invited her to another breakfast, this time at Gracie’s, the cavernous dining room at the Hotel deLuxe (Provenance bought the century-old hotel in 2004).

“So I’m talking to him about sports and downtown economic development, and he’s telling me about the Oregon governor’s film board doing a tour in LA, promising me huge opportunities, and the chance to work with the governor,” Sept recalls. In addition to being a major benefactor of the art museum, Sondland was the chair of the film board.

“I was so starry-eyed about all of these institutions and people and power associated with these kinds of opportunities,” Sept says. “I was convinced it was something he could help me attain.”

Soon after, Sept learned her path crisscrossed with Sondland’s in familial ways: Sondland had hired her uncle to paint his house, and her stepfather served with Sondland’s wife on the Oregon Investment Council. “I started to feel really comfortable,” Sept remembers. “We had all these points of connection. I thought, ‘I can trust this person.’”

Sondland invited Sept to dinner at El Gaucho, the same spot he took Vogel, to discuss a potential job at the film office. Sept showed up in a business suit, ready to network. When she arrived, she found that Sondland had ordered them what she recalls as “the nicest bottle of wine” on the menu.

Sondland spent much of the meal, Sept remembers, talking about his family and showing her pictures of his kids at the White House with then-President Bush. (The former president had appointed Sondland to the Commission on White House Fellowships.) It wasn’t until the tail end of the meal that the film office job finally came up. So Sept agreed to continue the conversation down the street at Saucebox, a cocktail bar.

Sept says she immediately headed for the bar’s bathroom.

“When I come back, he is sitting on the booth side of this big table,” she recalls. “He says, ‘Come sit next to me.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this isn’t good.’ So I said, ‘Oh, I forgot, I have to go home.’”

Sept says she apologized for cutting the evening short. Sondland paid the tab and then offered to walk her to her car. “He keeps insisting, and I’m nervous and afraid and I don’t want to make a scene, so I say, ‘OK, fine,’” Sept says.

At her car, Sept says, Sondland leaned in for a hug.

“So I give him a quick hug and he holds onto my shoulders and looks at me and pushes himself into me and tries to kiss me.”

Sept says she pushed him to the side, got into her car and sped off. The next day, trying to be the conscientious professional, she sent a follow-up email scheduling Sondland for a meeting with Fish.

“What was most important was that I maintain professionalism. I didn’t want him to think I was frazzled by this,” she says.

In response to Sept’s account, Sondland’s lawyer wrote: “Ambassador Sondland did discuss Ms. Sept’s job prospects with her, but he denies any unwanted touching. He specifically denies attempting to kiss her, along with her claim that she pushed him away.”

Soon after Sept’s encounter, she told a friend in local government about the incident. “She was shaken up,” says the friend, who declined to be identified. “That sort of behavior is shocking and should be shocking, and that’s how she reacted.”

Sept never heard from Sondland again about the state film commission job. She went on to work for prominent Democratic politicians, including on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

In his statement, Sondland said he has never been aware of any accusations of unwanted touching or kissing against him. “There has never been mention of them in any form during the period of the allegations,” he wrote, “although such a complaint could easily have been aired through multiple channels. These false incidents are at odds with my character.”

Sondland might have remained a Northwest power player, if not for his focus on becoming an ambassador, reportedly a lifetime goal.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Sondland had pulled away from Trump, removing his name as one of the hosts of a Seattle fundraiser after Trump ridiculed the Muslim family of a slain U.S. soldier. He initially supported Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. But when Trump was elected, Sondland donated $1 million to his inaugural committee.

Sondland’s dream of being an envoy was realized when Trump nominated him to be ambassador to the European Union in May 2018, the latest in a line of political donors named to the position.

Sondland has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in election campaign donations to mostly Republican candidates and causes. But he’s also donated to various Democrats, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Wyden spoke in support of Sondland during his confirmation hearings. The senator said he’s known “Gordy” for more than 25 years and said he expected that Sondland would represent “the Oregon way,” which Wyden described as “caring about people, having a good heart.”

The Senate approved Sondland’s nomination by a voice vote.

This fall, Vogel was driving to work, listening to NPR, when she heard “Morning Edition” co-host Rachel Martin detailing Sondland’s involvement in the impeachment inquiry.

“Was there a quid pro quo?” Martin asked. “And did Sondland make it happen?”

Vogel started to cry in her car.

“I’m somebody who has sort of laughed it off and rolled my eyes and said, ‘What a jerk,’ all these years, and suddenly I’m crying in my car?” she says. “What the hell? That doesn’t sound like me.” She recalls thinking at that moment about the transactional nature of Sondland’s Ukraine mission and saw it as a painful reminder of her own experience.

“The fact that [Sondland] uses his power to terrorize people who he perceives as having less power is really disgusting,” Sept says. “I want other women to feel comfortable to share their stories, and be believed.”

“I would hate to see anybody else go through it. This runs so far beyond just a little groping. It affects how I do business. And who I can do business with,” says Solis. So if talking “is the right thing to do, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

She wants her children to know that what their “mom did was right, that I had a sense of self and a strong character. And I want my character to be revealed to people in a positive way and in a way that is courageous to the degree that I can be.”

 

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