Gordon Sondland donated $1 million and landed a coveted post as U.S. ambassador to the European Union. The job could cost the Northwest hotelier a lot more as he steps this week into the full glare of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Sondland, who is scheduled to provide much-anticipated testimony before the congressional impeachment panel Wednesday morning, faces intense scrutiny over his role in helping Trump push Ukrainian leaders to launch political investigations in exchange for a White House meeting and U.S. military aid.
The impeachment-hearing minefield for Sondland ranges from reputational risk — Saturday Night Live and late-night comedians already have lampooned his ostensible memory lapses — to serious legal jeopardy, including potential charges of perjury.
The Mercer Island native, who built a lucrative business career as founder of the Portland-based boutique Provenance Hotels chain, has been known as a power player in Oregon politics, developing ties to both Democratic and Republican politicians, while maintaining his legal residence at Hotel Theodore in Seattle.
Although charges of lying to Congress are relatively rare, they could loom if Intelligence Committee Democrats determine Sondland knowingly gave false testimony, said Jeff Feldman, a University of Washington law professor. “If you swear falsely to Congress, just like if you swear falsely to a court or in an affidavit, that’s a crime. It’s a felony and it can carry heavy consequences,” he said.
Sondland’s texts and conversations with other diplomats — and an overheard cell phone call with Trump himself — have emerged as potentially crucial evidence in the abuse-of-power case Democrats are building against the president. Witnesses have testified Sondland played a key role in a pressure campaign to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
Some career diplomatic aides — and even political appointees — recoiled at that effort. John Bolton, then-national security adviser to the president, told National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill, “I am not part of this drug deal that Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” according to Hill’s sworn deposition.
Career diplomat David Holmes testified Nov. 15 about a phone call between Trump and Sondland, in which he said he heard the president ask Sondland, who took the call on an unsecured cellphone at a Kyiv restaurant, whether Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy would pursue the investigations he wanted. “Oh yeah, he’s going to do it,” Sondland answered, adding that Zelenskiy would do anything Trump asked, according to Holmes’ deposition.
Holmes testified that Sondland also told him “the president did not give a shit about Ukraine,” except for “big stuff that benefits the president,” such as the “Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.”
Sondland’s honesty has been called into question over significant gaps in his closed-door deposition in October. His account was contradicted by testimony from other diplomats and government officials, leading Sondland to amend his testimony. In a Nov. 4 declaration, he wrote that the other witnesses had “refreshed my recollection” about multiple conversations tying U.S. military aid on Ukraine launching Biden-related political investigations.
National media accounts have pointed to Sondland as a problematic witness, calling out the discrepancies in his story compared with other witnesses. “Time and again, envoy’s Ukraine tale differs from others,” read the Tuesday headline of an Associated Press analysis. An earlier analysis by Politico reported he faced a “credibility crisis.”
A Portland attorney for Sondland did not respond to requests for comment this week. But in a statement last month, the attorney, Jim McDermott, said Sondland, unlike some Trump administration officials, planned to comply with a subpoena to testify in the impeachment inquiry.
“Ambassador Sondland has at all times acted with integrity and in the interests of the United States. He has no agenda apart from answering the Committee’s questions fully and truthfully,” said the statement issued to Willamette Week.
Sondland got at least one bit of positive commentary during Tuesday’s impeachment hearings. When Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top White House expert on Ukraine, was asked if he believed Sondland and fellow diplomat Kurt Volker generally were “trying to do the best they could” and advocating the best interests of the U.S., he replied: “That’s what I believed and that is what I still believe, frankly.”
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, the only member of the Washington delegation on the House intelligence panel, said Sondland has three choices for Wednesday: amnesia, perjury or complete and truthful testimony.
“Last Friday probably brought him a pretty good reminder that lying to Congress has consequences,” said Heck, D-Olympia, referring to the conviction of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone on charges including lying and witness tampering in an effort to protect Trump from a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “It’s never too late to tell the truth and be honest.”
Heck said Sondland should “tell us about those conversations you had with the president.” He added: “He obviously was running around telling people they (the Ukrainians) weren’t going to get their meeting (with Trump) until they undertook the Biden investigation.”
Sondland already has faced accusations of lying to Congress from another member of the House Intelligence Committee. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, wrote on Twitter that, based on “all the testimony so far, I believe that Ambassador Gordon Sondland committed perjury.”
Feldman, the law professor, said perjury charges can be difficult to prove since someone has to be proven to have intentionally lied, as opposed to have a memory lapse. Witnesses also can insulate themselves by correcting false testimony in a timely manner. “That’s a defense to a perjury prosecution,” Feldman said.
The public talk of perjury or contempt charges represents a threat to the reputability of Sondland, who has been known as a successful Pacific Northwest businessman.
The son of Jewish parents who fled the Holocaust, Sondland, 62, had long desired to be named an ambassador in Europe, and associates say he raised money for successive Republican presidential candidates in pursuit of that goal.
Sondland was not initially a Trump supporter, backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In the summer of 2016, Sondland backed out of a high-dollar Trump fundraiser, citing the candidate’s insults directed at the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. But after Trump won, Sondland sent $1 million to his inaugural committee and was later nominated and confirmed as ambassador to the European Union.
Whether Sondland remains in Trump’s circle or gets thrown under the bus by the president will surely rest on how his televised testimony is perceived.
On Oct. 8, Trump cited a text message Sondland sent to fellow diplomats saying the president had imposed no “quid pro quo” on Ukraine aid. He called Sondland “a really good man and a great American.”
But the president, who has attacked the credibility of other impeachment witnesses, distanced himself from the ambassador when speaking Nov. 8 with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, saying “I hardly know the gentleman.”