February 18th, 2011 4:02 pm | by BETH SLOVIC News | Posted In: Politics

Documents Show Congressman David Wu's Staff “Threatened to Shut Down His Campaign”

David WuThis photo of U.S. Rep. David Wu landed in staffers' inboxes as concerns about the Democratic congressman's behavior increased. A spokesman for Wu called the photo "a moment with his kids."
U.S. Rep. David Wu’s behavior grew so erratic in the final weeks before his re-election last November that the Oregon Democrat’s closest political advisers staged two of what some of them termed “interventions” to urge him to seek psychiatric help, WW has learned.

Wu played down their concerns. Several staffers and consultants left his employ after the confrontations. Wu responded to written questions for this story on Feb. 14 and today answered more detailed written questions based on further reporting only through a spokesman.

Documents obtained by WW—emails and photographs sent from Wu’s federally issued BlackBerry in the early-morning hours of Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010—reveal a bizarre portrait of Wu in the days right before the Nov. 2 general election.

Wu’s increasingly odd behavior and communication typified by this set of emails so troubled staff that sources say the employees deliberately hid him from public view during the last three days of Wu’s campaign even as his Republican opponent furiously fought for votes across Oregon’s 1st Congressional District.

That district, a largely Democratic stronghold that encompasses some of Oregon’s biggest economic engines like Nike and Intel, begins on the west side of Portland and stretches through Washington County to Astoria on the north coast.

Wu, a 55-year-old former lawyer and graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, has served in Congress since 1999.

No single event appears to have prompted staff to conduct the two interventions. Instead, a snowballing series of events in the days before Wu handily defeated GOP challenger Rob Cornilles 55 percent to 42 percent combined to cause staffers to worry about the congressman’s judgment and the possible root cause of his problem, say close observers on Capitol Hill and in Portland.

Earlier this week, Wu denied a request from WW for a face-to-face interview in Washington D.C., choosing instead to respond in writing to questions sent to his D.C. spokesman about his actions right before the Nov. 2 election.

“I freely admit that it was an intense campaign, and I was not always at my best with staff or constituents,” he said through his spokesman on Feb. 14. “For all those moments, I wish I’d been better and I apologize.”

Around midday on Thursday Oct. 28, Wu was inside Central Drugs, a pharmacy on Southwest 4th Avenue, running errands, sources say. Other Wu staffers wanted to speak with him about his behavior. They confronted him at the store, but he refused to return to the office.

According to multiple sources, Wu went instead to Ping, a nearby restaurant for lunch. Only after he left Ping did those staffers stage the first “intervention,” an emotional meeting that spanned several hours during which staffers told the congressman they were worried about his health.

With Halloween approaching the Sunday before the Tuesday election, sources now tell WW that campaign aides had advised Wu not to dress in any costume that could potentially embarrass him. (He was expected to face a close contest.) They worried, too, that a goofy getup could provide fodder for last-minute campaign attacks from Cornilles, Wu’s well-financed Republican opponent. The issue arose after Wu told staffers about a Halloween party he had wanted to attend with family and friends.

What follows here is a series of early-morning email messages from Wu’s BlackBerry to multiple staffers sent on the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 30.

The emails do not offer a definitive account of why Wu’s aides fled the congressman’s office in significant numbers just after his sixth successful re-election campaign. They do reveal that Wu’s staffers apparently had confronted the congressman about his drinking. They also suggest Wu faced accusations of harassment from his employees—and that Wu wasn’t eager to listen to any of the advice. Wu, through a spokesman, wouldn't respond to specific questions about the written content of the emails.

At 1:03 am PST on Saturday, Oct. 30, an email from Wu’s Congressional BlackBerry landed in the inbox of a female staffer. The congressman—who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Oregon—was then in Portland.

There was no message attached to the email, only a single image. That photo, copied above, showed Wu in a plush tiger suit with orange- and black-striped mittens over his hands, a hood with pointy ears pulled over his head and a white circle split by a zipper stretched over his stomach. A seemingly red-faced Wu is sitting on a bench in what appears to be a bedroom, with his hands held in the air. A spokesman, Erik Dorey, today called the photo a private moment between family members. He further described the photo as "David Wu joshing around with his kids the day before Halloween."

Nineteen minutes later, at 1:22 am PST, a second email from Wu’s official email address went to multiple Wu staffers under the subject line “not funny.”

The email read as if it had come from one of Wu’s two children; the name of his middle-school-age daughter appeared at the end of it as a signature. But it’s not clear whether she sent the email in the wee hours of the morning or did so at the request of her father. Another possibility—the one that apparently disturbed staffers—is that Wu sent the email on his own, pretending to be his child. In any case, the email suggests Wu had been sparring with his staff.

“You’re the best, but my Dad made me say that, even though you threatened to shut down his campaign.”

Ten minutes later a third email went to two female staffers. This time, it contained another photo and a similar “you’re the best” message. The name of Wu’s son appeared at the bottom of that email.

Whether the photo depicted a staged or real event is uncertain. Someone who appears to be Wu is in the full-body tiger costume. He is face-down on a made bed with his arms at his side, as if asleep or passed out.

A wallet and headphones are strewn next to him on the bed. Behind him, a child who appears to be Wu’s 13-year-old son stands beside the bed dressed in a T-shirt and khaki pants with his hands on Wu’s shoulders. It is not evident whether the boy is trying to wake his father, give him a back rub or play along with a joke.

Six minutes later, at 1:38 am, a fourth email arrived in staffers’ inboxes. The content related to Wu’s drinking. The subject line contained one word: “wasted.”

The email, with Wu’s son’s name at the end, said: “My Dad said you said he was wasted Wednesday night after just three sips of wine. It’s just that he hasn’t had a drink since July 1. Cut him some slack, man. What he does when he’s wasted is send emails, not harass people he works with. He works SO hard for you … Cut the dude some slack, man. Just kidding.”

(If Wu had wine that week, that would contradict a Feb. 14 statement the congressman made in response to a written question from WW. “I, as part of a weight loss push, stopped drinking last year for five months,” Wu said through a spokesman. “I have had a drink on occasion since then.”)

Then, at 1:40 am, a fifth email from Wu’s BlackBerry arrived with both children’s names at the end of the message. It appears to have been directed at one of Wu’s many longtime staffers, some of whom had worked for the congressman for about 12 years.

“My Dad says you’re the best because not even my Mom put up with him,” the email said. “[Y]ou have. We think you’re cool.”

Until announcing their separation in 2009, Wu and his second wife, Michelle, 48, had been married for about 13 years.

On Jan. 19, The Oregonian published an account of the departure of six staffers and two consultants from Wu’s political team in a piece that also addressed the final days of Wu’s 2010 campaign. The story described Wu’s “bursts of puzzling public behavior” right before the Nov. 2 election and detailed two publicly documented events. “On Oct. 27, [Wu] gave a speech so negative and loud that a Washington County Democratic Party member complained formally to his office,” the daily newspaper reported. “The outburst was followed two days later by an episode at Portland International Airport, where Wu used his influence as a member of Congress to enter a restricted area and campaign for votes from off-loading passengers.”

But those incidents were not isolated. WW’s sources describe a pattern of inexplicable conduct that prompted their election-eve interventions, a second of which occurred Saturday in downtown Portland, hours after the flurry of emails went out on that Saturday around 1 am. For more, be sure to check out WW’s print edition this Wednesday, Feb. 23.

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