As accusations of sexual abuse of teens piled up against Seattle Mayor Ed Murray in 2017, he tried to fight back and rehabilitate his image. But a longtime confidant secretly pushed to “get the abuser out of office.”
On a Sunday afternoon in July, Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González told Mayor Ed Murray she planned to call for his resignation the next day. Within hours, she received a surprising phone call.
On the line was Jeff Reading, Murray’s personal spokesman, who had helped the mayor aggressively combat a series of child sexual-abuse allegations over the spring and summer.
“I expected it to be a call to dissuade me,” González recalled. “And he did not dissuade me.”
Instead, Reading, a political consultant who had worked with Murray since his days as a Democratic state senator, advised González “to be as bold as I could be,” she said.
The Seattle Times had just reported that an Oregon child-welfare investigator in 1984 concluded Murray had sexually abused his teenage foster son, Jeff Simpson. Moreover, officials
had asserted Murray should never again serve as a foster parent.
Behind Murray’s back, Reading cited the story and urged González in a series of text messages to correct “an accident of history” and get “the abuser out of office.”
“Isn’t that good for the city too?” he wrote. “To not have to keep reading about how your mayor abused minors?”
Reading’s messages — along with details from hundreds of pages of city emails, texts and other public records, and interviews with more than 20 people close to Murray’s administration — illuminate previously unrevealed crisis points in a career built on borrowed time:
A private meeting in 2012 to craft responses in the event sex-abuse allegations emerged. An accuser’s angry nighttime messages sent to the mayor’s office, prompting an alert to Murray’s attorney. Concerns from a city aide about the mayor’s efforts to involve city employees in his defense. And, during his final weeks in office, Murray’s attempts to rehabilitate his personal image.
Murray, who resigned in September, consistently has denied allegations by five men who say he sexually abused them as teenagers decades ago. He declined to be interviewed in person for this story, but answered some questions about Reading’s actions and other revelations through his attorney, Steve Fogg.
No other accusers?
In late summer 2012, Murray, then a powerful state senator eyeing a run for Seattle mayor, organized a meeting at his home on Capitol Hill. Joining him were Reading and Sandeep Kaushik, another longtime political consultant and lobbyist.
They wrestled with a thorny problem: How would Murray deal with his former foster son’s abuse claims should they crop up publicly during a mayoral campaign?
For hours, they war-gamed potential questions from reporters. Murray offered forceful denials, noting Oregon authorities had declined to file criminal charges when Simpson first accused Murray of repeatedly raping him in the 1980s. He also referred to a stack of records he kept that impugned Simpson as a manipulative criminal.
Murray pointed out that news media had opted not to run the story in 2008, after Simpson and another accuser, Lloyd Anderson, threatened a lawsuit and spoke with some reporters.
The consultants left satisfied with Murray’s explanations, and assurances he knew of no other potential accusers.
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Through Fogg, Murray said the strategizing “wasn’t a summit meeting on (Simpson’s) allegations,” but a general assessment of potential political attacks he could face during the campaign.
Privately, Murray had feared similar allegations could jeopardize his career, his sister, Aileen Policros, said during an interview in September. At one point, when he was a state representative, Murray worried in a phone call to another sister that his cousin Joseph Dyer’s decades-old claim that Murray had sexually molested him might surface, said Policros, who rejects all allegations against her brother.
Murray, through Fogg, disputes having such worries, saying he hadn’t heard about Dyer’s allegations before September.
Regardless, Dyer’s claims — which other family members have said were known about for years — remained hidden as Murray ascended to the state Senate and became Democratic leader. By the close of 2013, Murray’s political stock had risen even higher, after he defeated incumbent Mike McGinn to become Seattle’s mayor.
“I still have nightmares”
“hey ED this is one of a few kids you molested,” began the note from Lloyd Anderson, the man who had joined Simpson in a short-lived pursuit of a civil lawsuit eight years earlier.
From a computer at his home in Florida, Anderson tapped out the angry message through a constituent-comment form on the mayor’s office website on June 2, 2015.
Coming midway through Murray’s term, the nighttime message sent alarms through the mayor’s office.
Anderson had met Murray in the late 1970s at a Portland children’s group home where Murray was a counselor. He claimed Murray later paid him for sex when Anderson was a teenager.
In his message, Anderson asked if Murray remembered “slapping me around and then making me perform oral sex on you?”
He added: “I want you to know that even after 20 years of marriage and two children and a halfway decent life I still have nightmares about what you did to me and jeff.”
Three days later, Anderson fired off another note, saying his therapist had told him “Seattle should know all about their mayor.” He threatened to call reporters. “Ed I am glad that you have made a difference and have done a lot of good, but does the good outweigh the bad? Lets ask the media. God bless.”
In an interview last year, Anderson said he recalled sending the messages, but “never got anything back.”
Murray had long denied Anderson’s claims to his confidants.
Chris Gregorich, Murray’s chief of staff at the time, said the mayor’s office didn’t respond to Anderson, but notified Murray and his Portland attorney, Katherine Heekin.
Murray “didn’t take any action on that,” Fogg added, because Anderson “wasn’t making a complaint that had anything to do with city business.”
Despite his threat to go public, Anderson said, he didn’t speak with any reporters at the time.
Accusations rise, political options shrink
Heading into 2017, Murray was riding high as mayor, having amassed political victories including a $15-an-hour city minimum wage and voter approval for major transportation and housing levies. He was gaining national attention as a leader in the liberal political resistance to President Donald Trump.
The path to re-election looked smooth.
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That all changed in April, when Delvonn Heckard, a recovering drug addict, filed a lawsuit accusing the mayor of raping and sexually abusing him decades earlier. The same day, The Times published similar accusations by Anderson and Simpson.
Murray vehemently denied the abuse claims and hired a prominent attorney to fight Heckard’s lawsuit. Behind the scenes, he tapped political allies and pushed his city aides to help him mount a defense.
Shortly after a fourth man came forward in May to allege similar abuse, Murray announced he would not seek re-election, but vowed to finish his term.
Doubt swirled about his accusers’ motivations after Heckard withdrew his lawsuit in June, even though he promised to refile it once he completed drug treatment. Murray said he had been vindicated. He considered a late write-in campaign, but dropped the idea after commissioning a poll.
He and his allies weighed how he could land work after leaving office.
In a July text exchange with Murray, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Scott Kubly pitched a possibility.
“I have an act 2 idea,” Kubly texted the mayor.
“Interesting,” Murray responded.
“I think you (should) replace Peter,” Kubly wrote.
Kubly was referring to Peter Rogoff, executive director of Sound Transit. (A spokesman for Rogoff said last month Rogoff wasn’t aware of Kubly’s idea for Murray, nor does Rogoff have plans to leave the transit authority.)
Murray’s talk with Kubly about replacing Rogoff wasn’t serious, Fogg said.
“That was all just said in jest between (Murray) and Scott,” Fogg said. “Ed hasn’t taken any steps to pursue that idea.”
The text messages fly
The prospect of Murray landing any high-profile job after leaving office — or even serving out his term — took a major hit in mid-July.
After reading the story detailing the findings of the abuse probe in Oregon, González, the City Council member who’d previously worked as Murray’s legal counsel, felt she had to act.
“I represented victims of sexual assault and abuse in the past,” she said in a recent interview, “and if I were in the position of having an opportunity to talk to Mr. Simpson — if he came into my office and asked me to consider taking his case — would I take it? The answer to that question was yes.”
González turned to political consultant Christian Sinderman for advice on making a public call for Murray’s resignation. Sinderman, who also had worked for Murray and considered him a friend, recalled feeling “caught in the middle” but nonetheless supported González’s approach.
When she informed Murray of her plans, González said the mayor told her he didn’t deserve to be forced from office.
“He began to talk about his suffering and how difficult that this has been for him and he just wanted to finish out his term on, you know, his terms,” she recalled.
Later, González said she was struggling with how to frame a statement when she received a call from Reading, a confidant of Murray’s for more than a decade.
“This was ‘a mistake in history’ that needed to be corrected,” González recalled Reading telling her.
He pressed the case in a text: “Someone who has been disqualified to be a foster parent in the state of Oregon should be disqualified from being mayor in the city of Seattle — regardless of when that determination is brought to light …
“Seattle should not have a child abuser as mayor because of a clerical mishap, no matter how much time is left in his administration.”
Reading wasn’t done. The next day, he wrote to González: “Seriously, who wants a mayor that CPS says sexually abused a minor and should never be put in that position again? It’s astounding that Ed has had a 20 year career in elected office. These records should have disqualified him …”
Reading wondered to González whether other City Council members would “come around” to support her position on Murray’s resignation.
“I don’t know,” she responded. “Ed worked Bruce [Harrell], Sally [Bagshaw] and Debora [Juarez] pretty hard yesterday.”
Still, González predicted Councilmembers Rob Johnson, Tim Burgess, Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant eventually would join her call for Murray to step down.
Murray separately worried González’s plea would win support.
“I think council might go there and I am already on the brink of financial disaster,” he texted that Monday to former Deputy Mayor Andrea Riniker.
His chief of staff, Mike Fong, quickly gauged support for Murray among other council members. Bagshaw assured him in a text that a “response to Lorena is circulating.”
“I think we will get 5 votes,” she added. “I think you will like it.”
“Thank you. This is very helpful and supportive,” Fong texted back. “It will help put some brakes on what was starting to look like a runaway train.”
“Shame on those who want a political witch hunt for their own political gain,” Bagshaw responded.
In the end, only Sawant joined González’s call for resignation.
Bagshaw did not respond to recent requests for comment about her text exchanges with Fong.
Fong resigned as Murray’s chief of staff about a month later, taking a job with King County Executive Dow Constantine before returning to City Hall late last year as a deputy to newly elected Mayor Jenny Durkan.
Reading declined to comment for this story, except to say that he was no longer under professional contract to Murray’s campaign at the time of his text exchanges.
Fighting accusations, launching image rehab
In late July, Murray orchestrated a defense to hold onto his job. He solicited advice from former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, who offered to write a letter co-signed by three other Seattle ex-mayors defending Murray against resignation talk.
The mayor also asked some staff members to help him beat back the widening scandal, at one point requesting help researching Oregon laws related to foster parenting, according to a person familiar with the requests.
With assistance from city aides, Ian Warner, the mayor’s legal counsel, kept the mayor apprised of the media’s requests for records related to the scandal. The mayor’s executive assistant forwarded some of the reporters’ requests to Murray’s private attorney, Robert Sulkin.
Murray’s requests made at least one city employee uncomfortable, according to public records.
In late July, Joe Mirabella, a spokesman for the city’s economic-development office, sought advice from Susan Coskey, the city’s human-resources director, emails show.
“I hesitate to put anything in writing but I need some clarity on the boundaries for some issues I’ve been asked to help on which seem inappropriate to me,” Mirabella wrote. “I think you can imagine.”
Coskey set up a meeting. Emails show she contacted Warner, but the city withheld contents of those messages when releasing public records requested by reporters, citing attorney-client privilege. No formal personnel investigation was launched.
Mirabella, who still works for the city, declined to comment for this story.
Through his attorney, Murray said he was careful to keep city work separate from personal tasks to help defend him against the allegations. “That wasn’t his expectation or desire that city employees would work on (his defense) on city time,” Fogg said.
By late summer, Murray also was looking beyond the final months of his term, seeking to rebuild his tattered public image with the help of friends.
Paul Anderson, CEO of the Seattle-based talent-management firm Workhouse Media, sent a message to his friend Murray’s personal email account describing a “Confidential Strategic Process” to get “a personal branding process underway.”
They’d start out with Murray completing a questionnaire, known as a Birkman Assessment, to determine his personal strengths and needs, followed by a meeting with a renowned local leadership coach, Beroz Ferrell, according to a string of emails released under public-disclosure laws.
The emails show Murray undertaking the rebranding effort in late August and early September.
Nonetheless, Murray last month claimed his work with Anderson took place only after he left the mayor’s office. “It was just a 20-minute test,” Fogg said. “That all happened after he resigned. Paul reached out to him through a mutual friend.”
Also aiding the effort was Martha Choe, a former chief administrative officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who had served as a Seattle City Council member in the 1990s. Murray had worked for her as a council aide.
In an email to Ferrell, Choe said she’d “done work with Ed” for more than a year based on feedback “related to his management and communications styles.”
Murray quickly completed the questionnaire, and Ferrell and Choe worked with the mayor’s official scheduler to set up a late-September meeting to go over the results.
But Murray’s plans changed Sept. 12.
Late that morning, The Times informed Reading it planned to report that Dyer, Murray’s cousin, had alleged in interviews and a sworn affidavit that Murray molested him when he was 13, in the mid-1970s.
Murray denied the allegations in a phone call with reporters and insisted he would not resign. After the call ended, Murray met with advisers in his office.
Within two hours, the mayor announced he would step down the next day.
Dyer’s accusations, known among Murray’s extended family for decades, shocked his longtime allies.
“I don’t think there was a single person who wasn’t blindsided by that,” Sinderman said. “I guarantee you nobody knew.”
On Sept. 13, as the media gathered at City Hall for Council President Harrell’s swearing-in as interim mayor, Murray’s staff stayed mostly behind closed doors.
Some reporters wondered: Would Murray make a statement? Was he even there?
But the outgoing mayor wasn’t at City Hall, and hadn’t been all day.
A few hours after the news broke about his cousin a day earlier, Seattle’s 53rd mayor left the city with his husband. They headed to their beach home in Seabrook, on the Olympic Peninsula, where Murray spent his final day as the city’s chief executive. Joining them at the beach was a Seattle police officer — one of two officers to be assigned over the next 10 nights at city expense to provide out-of-town security to the former mayor.
The day after his resignation, Murray emailed his former executive assistant with a request:
“Could you pack all my Mayor note cards, pads, and pins?” he asked. “It is a bit of a outgoing elected tradition.”
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Andrea Riniker as a deputy mayor. She is a former deputy mayor.