Clackamas County prosecutor has history of battling

Terry Gustafson's staff says she will fight the perjury charges against her all the way

The Oregonian/October 7, 1998
By Mark Larabee

Oregon City -- Moments before being indicted on criminal charges Monday, Terry Gustafson walked into a conference room filled with her staff and confirmed what most people in the Clackamas County district attorney's office had suspected for days.

She was about to go before a judge and enter "not guilty" pleas, she told them. Despite the drama of the events, she was concise and showed little emotion. Gustafson quickly wrapped up her business and left to face the judge.

"I think she was in incredible control," said one deputy prosecutor. "She was very measured. I was quite impressed.

"With my whole world crashing down on me, I'm not sure I could have pulled it off," the deputy prosecutor added.

Prosecutors in the office would talk only on the condition of anonymity. Gustafson and her two lawyers did not return phone calls Tuesday.

Monday's staff meeting was vintage Gustafson: Collected. Determined. Unflinching. After hearing the charges of perjury and intentionally releasing court records, she vowed to fight them rather than give up. Gustafson, 47, marched from the courthouse with a look of determination, not regret.

Even as Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers moved Tuesday to assume all the legal decisions of Gustafson's elective office, Gustafson didn't balk, a deputy prosecutor said.

"I don't think she's going to give up the office without a fight," the deputy prosecutor said.

Gustafson might have no choice. Until her legal troubles are resolved, Gov. John Kitzhaber ordered Myers to take over all decisions regarding criminal prosecutions and investigations, as well as civil actions involving the state.

"The governor has directed us to take over certain aspects of her duties and we will do that," said Kristen Grainger, assistant to Myers. "We'd like to take a collaborative approach to how the office is going to operate."

Gustafson will have power only to make administrative decisions about the day-to-day operations of the office and its 26 lawyers, its 56 clerical and professional employees, and an annual budget of nearly $5.9 million. Gustafson earns $81,734 a year.

Gustafson and state attorneys began talking Tuesday about the transition. One state official characterized the talks as "sensitive."

"Anyone who knows Terry knows that she's not going to back down," one of her deputies said. "She'll go with her strength. She's a fighter."

Gustafson used the same bulldog determination in the face of criticism for prosecuting 10-year-old Brandon Roses of Mulino for murder in 1995.

This spring, when she decided not to file criminal charges in the unattended deaths of children in Oregon City's Followers of Christ, a faith healing church, she sparred publicly with Myers and prosecutors from other counties who said state law allowed her to prosecute the parents.

And so it's been since the first of her legal troubles began in October 1994, when the Oregon State Bar moved to have her law license suspended. Her fighting spirit has carried her through years of scrutiny by the bar and most recently, by state investigators looking into charges of criminal wrongdoing.

Gustafson was charged Monday with two felony counts of perjury for allegedly lying to a circuit judge and an Oregon State Bar trial panel and one misdemeanor count of releasing a juvenile court record a judge had ordered destroyed.

Pat Birmingham, one of Gustafson's two lawyers, entered not guilty pleas on all three counts. Gustafson was then fingerprinted and her photo taken at the county jail. Then she was released.

It started as a disagreement between lawyers: Gustafson, a strong-willed deputy district attorney, and Larry Matasar, who was defending a boy accused of sexually assaulting two younger girls.

In October 1994, Matasar complained to the state bar, which issues licenses to attorneys, that Gustafson threatened him with prosecution if he didn't testify against the boy's parents, who were charged separately with similar crimes.

The trouble between the lawyers escalated. Matasar was so concerned he asked the Oregon Supreme Court to remove him from the case, and the justices agreed. The boy eventually was acquitted and the case against his parents was dismissed.

Attorneys for the bar thought Gustafson's law license should be suspended at least a year for the alleged ethical lapse. They set up a trial in which Gustafson's legal career was on the line.

With all this hanging over her, she ran for district attorney against her former boss, John Foote, the governor's appointee. Gustafson won the May 1996 primary by more than 7,000 votes. The bar's trial panel cleared her of all charges just days before her January 1997 inauguration.

Gustafson's legal headache seemed to be behind her. But a few months later, it all came crashing down again. Portland lawyer Steve Houze, who also represented the boy accused in the sexual assault case, requested a formal inquiry into how some of his client's court records became public. The judge had ordered them destroyed following the boy's acquittal. Oregon law allows for the destruction of juvenile court records in cases of acquittal to protect the futures of minors charged with crimes.

Gustafson admitted to having some records, including police reports and trial notes. She said she needed the records to mount her defense against the state bar's charges. She has said she knew nothing about the judge's order to destroy the records.

After hearing several witnesses, including legal secretaries and other prosecutors who said they discussed the destruction order with Gustafson, Circuit Judge Robert Morgan ruled that Gustafson had ignored his order and lied when she said she didn't know about it.

The state bar and the Oregon attorney general subsequently opened separate investigations.


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