Patricia Nell Warren

Sam Adams and Sex Scandals in High Office

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 31, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: Barney Frank, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Monica Lewinsky, political sex scandal, sex with minors, Watergate

As the Portland scandal mushrooms higher on the national scene, even Time Magazine has waded into the speculation on whether out gay Mayor Sam Adams' promising political career will survive the uproar. Adams is the first gay man to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Right now he is trying hard to hang on. As I write this, the 45-year-old mayor still insists that he won't resign.

With the pros and cons hotly debated by different LGBT factions, even some of our own are calling for Adams' resignation. His critics cite what they see as a serious breach of public trust -- namely, when Adams lied. At first Adams said that he had no sexual relationship with Beau Breedlove, a former intern. The young man corroborated his story. Later Adams admitted that there was a relationship, but said it started only after Breedlove turned 18. He apologized for his lie, and also admitted that he had asked Breedlove to lie as well.

Other LGBTs defend Adams fiercely, insisting that Adam's relationship with an 18-year-old male is just a molehill being turned into a mountain.

Adams' supporters are surprisingly many, and they cite LGBT people's right to have adult consensual sexual relationships, which is now generally established by the overturn of Bowers v. Hardwick, not to mention that Oregon decriminalized consensual same-sex sex between adults in 1971. The supporters demand that the current legal relationship between the two men should not be attacked. They say the lie doesn't bother them.

Legally speaking, however, the issue isn't about the post-18 relationship. It's about what may or may not have happened between the two while Breedlove was still a minor and a legislative intern that Adams was mentoring. In an interview with The Oregonian, Breedlove later told a different story, alleging some degree of sexual contact by Adams while he was still 17.

Result: Adams is now being investigated by the Oregon attorney general's office. Prosecutors want to know whether there was a violation of Oregon's rather convoluted definition of a sexual offense against a minor. Adams knows he's in trouble -- he has retained Bob Weaver, a top criminal lawyer in the region. According to reports I've read, His Honor could be charged with felony second-degree sexual abuse, as well as misdemeanors of third-degree sexual abuse, contributing to the sexual delinquency of a minor and sexual misconduct. Oregon law states that a person under 18 doesn't have the ability to consent.

Because he lied, Sam Adams may also be charged with obstructing justice. But meanwhile, Adams is innocent till proven guilty. I certainly hope the investigation proves him innocent.

Glow of Power and Authority

The subject of LGBT sex with minors is a touchy one for us because of that long-lingering toxic stereotype that "all homosexuals are child molesters." We wince when we see this slur flung at us, especially if it is directed at public figures who are out, because this kind of scandal always comes down on us harder than it does on heterosexuals. Nobody ever calls for all heterosexuals to be wiped off the face of the Earth because a few of them have sex with under-age teens. And there are some LGBT adults who do this. Their motive can range from the older person who is exploiting youth vulnerability and inexperience, to the 19-year-old who winds up prosecuted for being in a committed loving relationship with a 17-year-old. The law doesn't view love as an extenuating circumstance.

These days, 17-year-olds may be physically and even mentally very mature for their age, but most are hardly in an emotional or spiritual place to hold their own in a relationship with an older, more savvy person. The glow of power and wealth and authority around an older public figure can be alluring for a minor, especially one who is an ambitious worker bee somewhere in the political world. And the public figure can get caught in the myth of his or her own glow. This danger exists for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.

So the law draws a hard line in the sand. In recent years, many states have tightened their sex laws, raising the age of consent to 18.

Considering how puritanical our country is, a surprising number of sex scandals are perpetrated by pillars-of-society figures, especially clergy, judges and elected officials. As we read the news reports, many of us wonder, "What was he/she thinking?" But, as with other crimes, people in high places who commit statutory sex offenses probably weren't thinking at all at the time, and seem to have lived in a bubble where they were blind to the risk or assumed they wouldn't get caught.

Many of us are wincing now as scandal hits the popular and charismatic figure of Sam Adams.

Case Histories

As Adams' future is debated, we can look at examples of other gay politicians who stumbled into sex scandals. In these cases, the outcome depended on which side of the age-of-consent line the politician stumbled.

If the stumble is with someone over 18, the political career has a good chance of surviving. Most famous example: openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts). In 1989 the Washington Times broke the story about Frank's personal aide. Goodlooking Steve Gobie had been fresh out of jail and on parole when he met Frank. The Congressman paid him for sex, then took him in, gave him a job as aide and housekeeper, and was mentoring him. Gobie returned Frank's favor by running a prostitution business out of the Congressman's apartment in Georgetown, with clients slipping in and out. After the scandal broke, Frank didn't lie about his relationship with Gobie, but insisted to the House Ethics Committee that he hadn't known about Gobie's pimping.

The key fact: Gobie was 28 years old at the time. If he'd been under 18, Frank's Congressional career would have been road kill. As it is, Frank got off with a reprimand from the House. He was re-elected with a bang, and today is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. With a Democratic majority now swinging D.C., Frank is one of the powers in the Obama Congress.

The exact opposite happened to Rep. Mark Foley (R-Florida). Foley had never come out, but his sexual orientation was evidently well-known in the Beltway. In 2006, the public learned that Foley had allegedly sent sexually explicit emails and IMs to Congressional pages aged 16 and 17 years old. Foley was investigated but never charged. But the ongoing fallout, which revealed that some Republican leaders had ignored previous complaints about Foley's behaviour with pages, meant that the Representative was finished. He resigned later in 2006.

In the opinion of some pundits, Foley's disgrace contributed to the Republicans' loss of their control of Congress. Ironically, Foley had chaired the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, and had introduced bills that were punitive towards sex predators.

The case of Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) sits more on the cusp -- he insists he isn't gay, and prosecution focused around a misdemeanor charge of "disorderly conduct." Craig fell for a law-enforcement sting in an airport restroom when he evidently made attempts at sexual contact with a cop lurking in the next stall. In other words, there were no charges involving age of consent. When it was all over, Craig copped a plea of guilty, but preserved some shreds of political status, and managed to avoid resigning. In 2009 he left Congressional office without seeking re-election. Craig continues to deny that he's gay, though a number of gay men came forward to allege that he had sex with him.

Sex scandals can hit straight politicians just as hard. And for them, the outcome is usually determined by that same age-of-consent line in the sand.

Best example: Bill Clinton. Since intern Monica Lewinsky was 22 when Clinton first had what he claimed was just oral sex with her, there was never any question of a statutory sex offense. The scandal was mainly about Clinton's poor judgment and the lies he told. But if Lewinsky had been a minor, President Clinton would have been the biggest road kill in U.S. history. Not only would he have been compelled to resign, but charges could have been filed. Any conviction and resulting "disgrace" might have tinged Hillary Clinton's career as well.

So the Oregon investigation of Sam Adams is focused in that red-alert area -- sex with minors.

As one commenter said on Democratic Underground, "Leave interns alone. I don't understand why nobody ever cares that people in positions of authority are having sex with subordinates. Big No No."

Ex-Cons in Office

Some convicted felons can and do return to the political arena after getting out of prison.

Different states have different legal standards on this question. In Alaska, they're broadminded about felons...which is how Republican Senator Ted Stevens could recently run for re-election after he was convicted on seven (count 'em) counts of corruption. But Illinois is way less broad-minded. There, the other day, the tight-lipped legislature not only impeached Governor Blagojevich but barred him from holding public office in the state for the rest of his life. Yet The Blago hasn't yet been convicted of a crime, so must still be presumed innocent. On the federal level, the Constitution holds the door open for felons, providing that the Senate or House look at the circumstances and agree that such a person can serve in office.

This surprising government open-mindedness explains how several of the most notorious Watergate figures, who did time in federal prison after that signature scandal of the 1970s, managed to work up new political careers when they got out. Today John Erlichman and John Dean are respected columnists and commentators. Gordon Liddy is a talk-show host and political strategist, while Charles Colson became a religious-right leader and is showered with humanitarian awards for founding a prison ministry.

But the American public is far more forgiving about corruption or burglary or even DUI's committed by politicians (George Bush's old drunk-driving arrest comes to mind) than they are about statutory sex offenses committed by politicians. I don't know of any politicians who did time for sex with minors, then returned to office afterwards. They usually see their careers sink without a trace like the Titanic.

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I believe you mean Lawrence v Texas (2003), which overturned Bowers v Hardwick (1986).

Yes, I've clarified, as I meant to refer to the overturn of this Texas decision.

" ...(George Bush's drunk-driving arrest in 2000 comes to mind)... "

I'm afraid this is misleading. It was *discovered* near the end of the 2000 campaign that George W. Bush had a DUI many decades earlier. He was not arrested in 2000.

The bottom line is that to me: It feels like he was 'out of control' in the relationship. The way he apologized seemed to confirm that, and having someone in that position who can lose control with sexual desires and take fairly big risks, makes me immediately question if they can be trusted with the power they have been given. what other kinds of shenanigans might be in store, should they be allowed to continue in office. My experience as an observer of human nature tells me that if people get away with doing bad things, they tend to repeat.

Initially I fell on the side of leniency, but the way he skipped back to Portland from the inauguration and was initially trying to focus the the media on the fact that he had lied about his involvement with the teen... it felt like he was trying to divert attention from the larger issue of sex with a minor.

And then I saw his apology video. I think he should have just apologized and promised to work harder without a script. The way he did the video made it seem insincere, like he was just backpeddaling from a danger zone.

That's just my opinion - I don't live in Portland or the US even, I live in BC - so it's really up to the people and courts there.

You forgot one. The Gentleman from Maryland. Congressman from the Maryland 1st, Robert Bauman. He got caught with a page in the bathroom ( I think it was the bathroom). He apologized to his wife and the district blaming his actions on his twin compulsions booze and boys. He didn't say booze and boys, but he did call it his twin compulsion.

The boys in Washington must have kept him busy, cause I worked in his district office and he never made an inappropriate gesture in my direction (16 or 17 at the time).

I was just hitting the high spots, but thanks for adding this one.

Thanks for your thoughtful presentation of a loaded subject.

As with the subject of marriage, organized religion has us in a bind on the subject of "age of consent".

IMHO marriage should be an option for everyone who wants one, with the legal institution consisting of a civil union for all who wish to join in a personal legal partnership.

In reality, a huge majority of boys begin masturbating at puberty, and a great many are sexually active with partners before the age of 18.

In my experience, many young men/boys under 18 are very sexually aggressive and are, in fact, perpetrators, rather than victims.

Would it not be possible to simply expand current laws concerning "sexual harassment" to cover non-consensual sexual activity with post-pubescent young people?

Your thoughts?

Jim Toevs

Good points, Jim. But boys aren't the only consideration here, when age-of-consent laws are written. Girls' sex lives are a big factor too. These days, girls too are having sex younger and younger, and getting pregnant younger and younger, because of an unfortunate trend in teen thinking that having a baby is cool.

Personally, I feel for the high-school couples, gay or straight, who are an item before age 18, and one of them winds up being prosecuted when he or she turns 18. It hardly seems fair or just to label a kid as a "sex offender" when he or she might have been in a committed relationship. I recall a horrible case in Wisconsin a few years ago, where an 18-year-old heterosexual boy was sent to prison for 40 years for having sex with a 17-year-old girl. Yet both families knew about the relationship and the two kids had planned to get married. But the prosecutor went ahead and threw the book at them anyway.

In the present puritanical climate, with so many Americans regarding sex offenses as far worse than murder or corporate crime or political corruption, I don't see how we will get a more sensible or rational application of these laws.

From the examples you give, it sounds like the line in the sand could just as easily be Democrat/Republican as underage/overage. And, assuming an affair with someone who isn't underage, my guess is that Democratic contituents would be much more forgiving of both homosexuality and adultery. And, you know, having sex at all.

Good point. Republicans often make things more complicated for themselves than Democrats do, by taking positions on anti-gay or moralistic legislation. As a result, when Republicans get caught with their pants down (literally), the public is extra-disgusted with them because of their hypocrisy. Examples: Larry Craig actually tried to lead a move to have Barney Frank censured. And Mark Foley had sponsored legislation targeting sex offenders against minors.

I am gay. So is the mayor. That being said, he lied and can't be trusted again. He should have admiited the affair at the beginning and I would have supported him but not now. He will learn from his mistake of not being honest with his constituents. jSuck it up, resign, and move on.

I actually don't think that the age of consent is that big of a dividing line when it comes to many of these examples. For all we know, Breedlove was over the age of 18 before there was any sexual relationship between them (his attorney contends that Breedlove is wrong and that kissing doesn't count as sexual contact under Oregon law, but I don't really know that much there to know if he's right or wrong).

In the Mark Foley case, the age of consent in DC is 16, and the pages he IMed with were all 16 or over. That's why there wasn't any prosecution in that case - he hadn't done anything illegal. Well, that and they couldn't get into his office computer because he was a legislator.

In Clinton's case, Lewinsky was over the age of consent, and the Washington establishment and the Republican Party (as well as quite a few high-level Democrats!) made a huge brouhaha over that. I don't think he was just let go - he was impeached and forced to devote an incredible amount of attention to the case.

I also don't agree that his lying was the main problem there - the Republicans were looking for a reason to impeach, something to use against him to get some political capital and build power. If he had told the truth from the start, he probably still would have been impeached. As we just saw from this past election season, journalists don't much like the Clintons, conservatives are pretty deranged when it comes to that family, and Republicans don't mind using them as a fund-raising prop.

These days, 17-year-olds may be physically and even mentally very mature for their age, but most are hardly in an emotional or spiritual place to hold their own in a relationship with an older, more savvy person. The glow of power and wealth and authority around an older public figure can be alluring for a minor, especially one who is an ambitious worker bee somewhere in the political world. And the public figure can get caught in the myth of his or her own glow. This danger exists for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.

Power and authority definitely come into play in relationships between teens and adults, but they're not exclusive to those relationships. Like the relationship you mentioned in the Frank example, I'm sure there was a large power and authority difference going on there. Frank mentored Gobie, was well-known, held a prestigious job, had more money, was probably better educated, and was much older. The fact that Gobie was over the age of 16 or 18 (depending on how you look at it), doesn't change those facts.

I haven't seen a relationship before where both partners enter from completely equal footing. And if the fact that there'd a difference in authority between the partners is the reason we outlaw sex with minors, then we're going to have to go much further in banning relationships.

Since power and social positioning in the US are generally determined by money, what about sex between people in different tax brackets? We might scoff at the idea, but there is a large part of the country that does in fact believe that rich people are simply better than the rest of us, that they're intellectually, emotionally, and morally superior, which is why they're rich in the first place (one would think the Bush family would have disproved that idea...). So, under that paradigm, wouldn't someone who's very wealthy who has sex with someone who's poor be using his or her money to create a glow of authority, prestige, and power over another person?

The point is, a relationship doesn't have to involve a minor for one person to be wealthier, have more power, more authority, or even be significantly older, so why do we just focus on just these relationships?

The law doesn't view love as an extenuating circumstance.

Isn't that the biggest crime here? Love's good and important and there's a difference between a 42-year-old leading a 17-year-old on just to get laid and a 42-year-old who really cares about a 17-year-old and both people mutually consent to express their feelings for one another sexually.

Re the Foley case, it's not that simple. Federal prosecutors handed the case off to Florida, since Foley represented Florida. He could have been prosecuted more successfully in Florida, but the case didn't come along till shortly before Florida's 3-year statute of limitations ran out. The fact that Foley resigned so rapidly after the case became public, even though he wasn't going to be prosecuted, shows what a hot potato the age-of-consent issue is.

You can read more about the case at

Re the rest of your comments -- you make some good points. But my point is about what the state laws actually are, not what we wish they were.