A key figure in the Ukraine scandal that has President Donald Trump facing an impeachment crisis has ties to Tacoma.
The current U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, also is the founder of Provenance Hotels, which includes the Hotel Murano in Tacoma among properties in its portfolio.
Sondland in the past was at the center of a development fight over a waterfront hotel construction in Tacoma and has donated to political campaigns in this state and Oregon, as well as to the current president for his inauguration.
A series of text exchanges among U.S. diplomats, Sondland and a senior Ukrainian aide, along with the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, indicate concerns that a potential Ukrainian investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son’s business, as well as the 2016 election, was linked to U.S. aid.
The texts were sent to Congress this week by former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.
In the texts, Sondland appears to defend Trump, saying the president had been “crystal clear no quid pro quo of any kind.”
He then told the text group, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
The news of Sondland’s involvement in the Ukraine scandal started slowly rippling through Pierce County political circles Thursday night.
Among those making the connection was Pierce County Council member Derek Young. Young said when he read the former CEO of Provenance was involved, the company name rang a bell.
“I just looked it up and saw that they owned it. It was just shocking,” Young told The News Tribune. “If you get invited to things, the Murano is where you tend to go.”
Provenance also has hotels in Seattle and Portland, among several other locations nationwide.
Texts involving Sondland as an ambassador are at the center of the House impeachment inquiry about the president’s handling of U.S. relations with Ukraine.
Sondland is listed as the registered contact for more than 44 businesses across Washington, Oregon and Delaware. They include hotels, real estate companies and spas.
Sondland entered the Tacoma scene in the 1990s as an investor and partial owner of the Sheraton Hotel, according to News Tribune archives.
The Sheraton went up for sale for $36 million in 2004, and Sondland outlined a $6 million renovation project to the city of Tacoma. In 2007, Sondland offered $3.2 million to the city to purchase the property — a site that could have raked bids greater than $12 million if put on the open market.
Sondland has “horsepower behind him” and “powerful allies,” The News Tribune reported in 2007.
Perhaps the most high-profile issue Sondland was involved in for Tacoma was a lengthy legal challenge against the development of a 104-room hotel on Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway between the Esplanade Condominiums and Thea’s Landing.
Sondland led the pushback on a $20 million hotel project by Bellingham hotelier Mark Hollander on the Foss Waterway that started in 2009.
Hotel Murano owners under the name KS Tacoma Holdings LLC, including Sondland, argued that Hollander didn’t follow through on using union labor at his Marriott hotel on Pacific Avenue.
Sondland allied himself with a hotel workers union to delay the project.
After a four-year legal fight, Tacoma City Council approved a deal that proposed selling two parking lots to Hotel Murano for about $1.25 million in exchange for Murano ownership dropping a lawsuit over the Foss Waterway hotel and a commitment not to sue over the city’s attempt to develop a third site near the convention center.
The Hollander site still has yet to see construction, and a new 22-story convention center hotel developed by Yareton Investment, which broke ground in 2017, is under construction.
Both the city of Tacoma staff and Mayor Victoria Woodards declined to comment Friday on Sondland’s current activities as ambassador.
Provenance Hotels executives have donated to both Democats and Republicans in the past.
Executive vice president of Provenance, Bashar Wali, donated $1,000 to Woodards’ 2013 City Council campaign.
Wali also donated $1,000 to a Tacoma mayorial candidate James Merritt in 2009, according to PDC filings.
Sondland has given thousands of dollars to campaigns in Washington, including $1,000 to “Defeat 1098,” a measure against a tax incentive that would have added income taxes to those with an income of more than $200,000.
Sondland donated $12,500 in 2018 to Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler. In 2014, he gave Democratic John Kitzhaber $500, a year before the Oregon governor resigned amidst a federal investigation.
Sondland and Wali ran into a public relations debacle with Trump in 2016 over a fundraiser when they were revealed by The Seattle Times as among the hosts. They later said their names had been added without approval, with Provenance’s spokeswoman detailing Sondland and Wali’s issues with Trump during his run in 2016 in a statement sent to Willamette Week.
According to opensecrets.org run by the Center for Responsive Politics, Sondland made a $1 million donation via four LLCs to Trump’s inauguration. Prior to Trump’s rise in the GOP, according to the website, he’d also donated money to both George W. and Jeb Bush.
Sondland the next year was nominated for an ambassadorship.
The Washington Post, in an article published Oct. 4, noted that “Sondland’s support for Trump, at least in the text messages revealed Thursday, comes amid the most pivotal moment of his presidency — possibly putting Sondland’s own future in the administration in jeopardy.”