PORTLAND — A former aide who says state Rep. Matt Wingard pressured her to have a sexual relationship went public with her story Thursday, saying the Wilsonville Republican abused his position to manipulate her when she worked for him two years ago.
Wingard issued a statement Friday afternoon, saying the relationship was consensual and has been mischaracterized.
Samantha Berrier, now 23, describes desperately trying to stay in the good graces of a boss asking her to do things she wasn't totally comfortable with — drink alcohol underage or have sex. "I wanted to impress him," Berrier said. "He was my new boss, and in a way he was kind of this door into this whole new world I had never been a part of."
Wingard has apologized and dropped his re-election bid. He says the relationship was consensual.
Berrier said she was a 20-year-old Portland State University student eager to get involved in politics when she met Wingard at a 2009 College Republicans Christmas party in Salem and, half joking, suggested he hire her. Two months later, they crossed paths again and he asked her when she could start, she said.
She was excited to work for a state representative and to have an outlet for her conservative passions, she said. It quickly became clear that he was interested in more than a strictly professional relationship.
She described a work environment marked by sexual advances and emotional manipulation. Sometimes, she was flattered to have caught the eye of such an important man. Other times, she felt shame and guilt. She said her life was easier when she submitted to his advances. If she rejected them, he'd pretend she didn't exist or he'd belittle her. She didn't want to lose her job and she felt inadequate.
"It's an abuse of power over a young person," Berrier said.
Berrier's allegations first became public in a Willamette Week report last week. After seeing Wingard at a wedding and a political function, she discussed her experience with investigators from the Oregon Department of Justice in January and the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office in March. They did not investigate further because Berrier said that, although she felt coerced, the sexual relationship was consensual.
Last month, after Wingard learned that she had talked with investigators, he sent her a letter threatening to sue her for defamation if she didn't recant her story. She said Wingard dropped his legal threats Thursday when she agreed to back away from a text message she sent to investigators suggesting Wingard drugged her. She now she has no evidence and "should not have said it." The text message went sent on an emotionally charged day, she said.
Wingard sent a statement to KGW, saying her attempt to set the record straight may have actually caused more damage.
“While I can appreciate Ms. Berrier’s desire to, as she says, ‘do the right thing’ by going on the interview circuit yesterday and today, the fact still remains that she is mischaracterizing our consensual relationship and she lied to investigators when accusing me of drugging her drink," he said Friday. "This fact, that she has since retracted, cannot and should not be overlooked. I find it hard to comprehend how one can say they are ‘doing the right thing’ after openly lying and disparaging another person.”
Berrier said she never intended for her story to become public but agreed to discuss it in an interview at her lawyer's office, saying she's done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide.
According to her account, Wingard's questionable behavior began almost immediately after she started working for him. She wasn't yet 21 when he convinced her to drink beer at the 2010 Dorchester conference, an annual Republican gathering in Seaside, she said.
He later invited her to his room to talk — about her health, she thought, because she'd been feeling dizzy and numb. Instead, he asked, "What are you really doing here?" She left and, feeling queasy, laid down on the stairs, awaking in the early morning in Wingard's bed, fully clothed.
The next day, Berrier said, Wingard told her that she embarrassed him and would have to make it up to him. Back on the job, at the Capitol in Salem and Wingard's home office in Wilsonville, he said he didn't know if he could trust her, and he wouldn't talk to her.
So when he said she could gain his trust back, she was eager, she said. His solution: Come into his room wearing only a towel. She called a friend for a ride home, and he went back to ignoring her, she said.
A short time later, he kissed her while she was sitting on the couch, she said. She didn't react. But eventually, she accepted his invitation to spend the night instead of getting a ride home, and their sexual relationship began, continuing off and on for a short time. It felt uncomfortable and she said she didn't want to be a part of it.
"He told me it was in my best interest that I not tell anyone because nobody's going to take me seriously," she said. "I didn't want to be a part of it, but I didn't know necessarily how to get out of it. It kind of just got to a point where I really just hated him but I also really just hated myself, so I wasn't going to reach out or tell someone."