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Spokane, Wash., mayor Jim West, facing a recall election over a City Hall sex scandal, says he'll sue The Spokesman-Review newspaper for invasion of privacy. The newspaper in May broke stories contending that West trolled a gay online chat room, offering young men city jobs in exchange for sex. Several young gay men told the newspaper they were offered perks, trips, or City Hall jobs and appointments by West, who has said he did nothing illegal. The FBI is investigating whether those offers and appointments constituted an abuse of public office. West, 55, said he plans to sue no matter what the outcome of a special recall election, scheduled for December 6. The mayor faces a single count alleging that he misused his office by offering to help an 18-year-old man he met on Gay.com get a City Hall internship. The person who the mayor thought was a man named Brad was really a computer expert the newspaper had hired to track the mayor's online activities.
Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith said Friday he doubts West will ever make good on his threat but wishes the mayor would file suit prior to the special election so voters would have more information before making their ballot choice. "We're confident that in any legal action brought by Jim West and anybody else associated with this story...we'll prevail in court on all counts, on all levels," Smith said. "We stand behind our stories without qualification."
Subsequent stories about the contents of West's city-owned computer hard drive showed the mayor sought to meet gay men while he was on city-sponsored trips. The conservative former Washington State senate majority leader, who frequently opposed gay-friendly legislation, said he agrees with his lawyers that a lawsuit is in order. "The basic premise of the lawsuit is invasion of privacy," West told the Associated Press. "I understand from my lawyers that they believe that The Spokesman-Review actually broke state and federal laws regarding computer trespass and laws regarding privacy. Basically, the reason I'm bringing a lawsuit is, nobody, public or private, should go through what The Spokesman-Review has done to me as far as invading my privacy." A lawsuit would allow the newspaper to depose West under oath, Smith said, "so questions he's been ducking for months could be answered in time for the recall election." West said he wants to wait until after the election so the lawsuit won't become an issue that will confuse voters. Smith said West can claim to have a right to privacy but not when it involves his public performance. "I think the issue is always: When do the actions of a public official move into the public arena in such a way as to affect his performance or public policy? My argument is, in the case of Jim West, those things he claims are personal and private are in fact of significant public importance," Smith said. "And in those arenas I don't believe he has any right to privacy, and I don't think his privacy has been violated."
Jane Kirtley, a professor at the University of Minnesota Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, said it would be difficult, but not impossible, for a public figure to claim his privacy had been invaded. "As a general proposition, public officials have a diminished expectation of privacy," particularly involving information about their ability to do their jobs properly, she said. "That's not to say there is no zone of privacy." Invasion-of-privacy lawsuits by public officials become difficult to win if the stories are related to the official's fitness or ability to do the job, Kirtley said. West's lawyers would have to prove stories about his use of a city computer to access gay Web sites are not newsworthy or in the public interest, she said.
West said he plans to fight the recall by apologizing for "an unusual episode in my life" and asking the public for a second chance. "I thought I was keeping it pretty well separated," West said of his private and public lives. "But of course, public officials don't have separate lives." (AP)