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Nov 19, 2019
Originally published on November 19, 2019 4:51 pm

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As public impeachment hearings continue, let's look ahead to tomorrow's witness. It's the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. President Trump gave Sondland an unusual role in Ukraine policy. As part of it, Sondland urged Ukrainian officials to launch investigations so that military aid could flow. Like Trump himself, Sondland is a real estate developer who gravitated towards politics. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, he wasn't always a fan of the president.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When Gordon Sondland arrived to testify at a closed-door congressional hearing last month, he was hounded by reporters.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you here to salvage your reputation, sir?

GORDON SONDLAND: I don't have a reputation to salvage.

ZARROLI: I don't have a reputation to salvage, he said. But he does have one in Oregon. Sixty-two-year-old Sondland and his wife Katy Durant have long been a well-known power couple in the Portland area. Not only are they prominent in business; they're big contributors to civic and arts organizations, as well as major political donors. The son of Holocaust survivors, Sondland dropped out of college early to go to work. Here he is in a State Department video.

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SONDLAND: I started in the commercial real estate business and pretty soon discovered the hotel business.

ZARROLI: With a loan from his brother-in-law, Sondland bought and renovated an old hotel. He was just 28. Today, his company owns 14 hotels, six of them in Portland. Many are quirky properties displaying works of art.

LEN BERGSTEIN: He sees a good property - it's kind of in the right location - and makes enough of an investment in it to make it a highly desirable place.

ZARROLI: Len Bergstein worked for Sondland as a political relations consultant until 2014. Bergstein says Sondland worked hard to be seen as a civic leader, and he cared a lot about how he was seen. When Sondland worked out a deal with local government to acquire some land for a hotel, officials put out a press release. Bergstein says Sondland insisted that the release refer to him as a, quote, "pillar of the community."

BERGSTEIN: He was, in many ways, exercising kind of his political muscles to try and up his profile to take him from a kind of a noted and successful businessperson in a relatively narrow sense to much wider circles of prominence in the community.

ZARROLI: The Portland Business Journal reported that Sondland is a big fan of Ayn Rand, whose books promoting free-market capitalism are popular with many libertarian conservatives, but he has mainly donated to moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush and even to a few Democrats.

His relationship with Trump is complicated. Sondland publicly broke with Trump after the candidate attacked a gold star Muslim family. But behind the scenes, Sondland has raised a lot of money for him, says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And in that election, he gave nothing to Trump, but he was listed as one of Trump's bundlers in 2016. And of course, being a bundler gives you more clout than just giving, you know, a single donation.

ZARROLI: Sondland also donated a million dollars to Trump's inauguration through four companies he controls. Len Bergstein says a lot of people in liberal Portland have been taken aback by Sondland's willingness to work for the Trump administration.

BERGSTEIN: It was a surprise when Gordon found Donald Trump as an acceptable candidate. It wasn't his type of Republican that he supported.

ZARROLI: But witnesses say Trump relied on Sondland to pressure the Ukrainian government, and that has put Sondland in the eye of the storm. Whatever happens in the impeachment inquiry, he has already paid a price. Sondland has been confronted with protesters when he goes out in public, and one Democratic congressman called for a boycott of his hotels.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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