The Closer

There’s one thing Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss won’t do when he’s on a story: stop.

By Kasey Cordell May 19, 2009 Published in the March 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

Slight of frame, clean-cut, clad in comfortable shoes and wire-rimmed glasses, Nigel Jaquiss may be the scariest man in khakis you’ll ever meet.

If you hold any piece of the public trust in Portland, and if you do something wrong, and if Jaquiss catches even the slightest whiff of it, chances are you’d better hire a publicist or start looking for a new job. A reporter for the alt-weekly Willamette Week , Jaquiss reported and wrote the news-breaking stories that led to the downfall of former Governor Neil Goldschmidt and the almost-downfall of Mayor Sam Adams. Adams had barely settled into the mayoral suite in January when Jaquiss’s intentions to publish a story about hizzoner’s former sexual relationship with a teenage intern forced Adams to stop lying about the matter.

The story of course echoed the one with which Jaquiss made his name: a piece detailing Goldschmidt’s long-denied sexual misconduct with a fourteen-year-old babysitter, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Uncanny, the similarities between the Goldschmidt and Adams cases. Both politicians had distinguished themselves early as influential Dems and media darlings; both were or had been Portland mayor; both lost credibility by having objectionable relations with a young person; and both fell, or almost fell, or may yet fall, by the ink-filled sword of a former Wall Street oil trader who became a journalist because he wanted to change his life.

Other local reporters chased the Goldschmidt and Adams stories, but Jaquiss landed them. “There is about Nigel a doggedness and a fearlessness,” says Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman. “He won’t quit just because he’s been deterred once or twice or three times.”

Jaquiss spent eighteen months working on the Sam Adams story. At each dead end, he returned to the fat folder on his desk and reexamined every note, every scrap, looking for the next link. For instance, when he learned that a source known only as “John” once lived in a Pearl District apartment overlooking a piano store, he canvassed the neighborhood until he found the building; using public records, he called tenants until he found the source. “The truth never really goes away,” Jaquiss says. “To some degree, [getting the story] is just a matter of accumulating information and waiting.”

It would be inaccurate, though, to cast Jaquiss as a muckraker looking for the next sex scandal, although that’s how some of his detractors and competitors choose to see him. (“Nigel has built quite a reputation with sex-scandal stories, and deservedly so. He is dogged and very good at that genre,” Oregonian editor Sandy Rowe recently sniped to Newsweek in a story about how Jaquiss scooped his nationally lauded and far more heavily financed competitor.

The stories that Jaquiss is proudest of include a 2001 piece on dangerous radon levels at Whitaker Middle School—a piece that led to the school’s immediate closure; and the one about the questionable investment practices of former Lewis & Clark College president Michael Mooney. “In my view, the press’s job is to scrutinize institutions and individuals in power and ensure they’re upholding the public trust,” Jaquiss says.

His is a critically important worldview at a time when newspapers are shuttering investigative units and hemorrhaging staff; the trend threatens democracy itself given the press’s historical role as a watchdog that keeps power in check and the electorate informed. In some newsrooms and at magazines (including this one; see Becoming Sam Adams, January 2009), it’s entirely possible for writers to be fazed by promise and power, to overlook the obligation to scrutinize. As journalist and Portland Confidential author Phil Stanford says of Jaquiss, “Unlike so many reporters, he’s not overly impressed with people in power.”

Which puts Jaquiss in a unique position to answer the following question:

Is there such thing as an honest politician? Jaquiss starts to speak, then stops. “Sure, I think there are … I remain aware that there’s a lot that’s good out there,” he finally says. “It’s just not what I report on.”

Lucky for us all.

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