Politics

Two prominent Woodburn Democrats reported illicit massage parlor contact, police records show

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
July 15, 2022 12:58 a.m. Updated: July 15, 2022 7:30 p.m.

Police records show both Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson and school board Chair Anthony Medina went to police in February to report inappropriate contact. Both men subsequently became legislative candidates.

Police investigated The Woodburn Spa after two prominent local politicians reported being propositioned there in early 2022.

Police investigated The Woodburn Spa after two prominent local politicians reported being propositioned there in early 2022.

Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle / Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle

Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson and Anthony Medina, the chair of the city’s school board, took their political careers to another level earlier this year. Running separately, the Democrats won their party’s nominations for a pair of Woodburn legislative seats — Swenson in the Oregon Senate, Medina in the state House.

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But the two men have something else in common that could slow their momentum: Both told Woodburn police they had sexual contact with employees at a local spa, then voluntarily reported that conduct to authorities.

Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson abandoned his bid for state Senate, despite winning the Democratic nomination in May.

Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson abandoned his bid for state Senate, despite winning the Democratic nomination in May.

City of Woodburn

According to videos of police interviews, Swenson and Medina went to police separately in February, and their visits to spa were separate and unrelated.

The men, who serve together on the Woodburn school board, offered similar tales. Both told police they’d gone to The Woodburn Spa for a massage, and were surprised when a staff member initiated erotic contact, according to their police interviews, which OPB obtained through a public records request. Swenson and Medina both said they were caught off guard and left the building.

No charges have been filed in the matter. Documents obtained via the state’s public records laws show police arrested and ticketed two people for practicing massage without a license, but suggest they do not plan on pursuing further charges. They also show that the FBI is not looking into allegations of sexual trafficking at the business.

Even without charges, the twin incidents could have political reverberations in an election year.

Swenson surprised many political watchers in June when he abandoned his race for Senate District 11 abruptly, telling supporters he’d decided to seek another term as mayor instead. The Woodburn mayor has stuck by that story, but his connection to the police investigation had been whispered about in political circles ahead of his announcement.

The head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, Oliver Muggli, acknowledged Wednesday that that matter had emerged as the party began preparing to support Swenson in the general election. But Muggli said Democrats had not asked Swenson to step aside. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, whose seat Swenson was seeking, declined to say in June whether unflattering details had emerged about the mayor.

“I don’t know anything factually, specifically, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Courtney, who is not seeking reelection.

Swenson told OPB in late June that the police matter was “way way down” his list of reasons for withdrawing, but declined to go into specifics about what he’d actually told police. In an email to OPB Tuesday, Swenson reiterated that he’d gone to police in February to report the spa incident, before he filed to run for the Legislature.

“I entered the senate race having already reported this — and knowing there was some possibility it might become public,” Swenson wrote. “If it did, I did not think that fulfilling my civic duty by reporting an incident to help an investigation into possible illegal activity would play a major factor in a political race, even if the circumstances might seem newsworthy to some.”

Medina, the school board chairman and a policy analyst at the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, went to police first to report inappropriate contact at the massage parlor. He phoned Woodburn on Feb. 9, records show, shortly after he said what he expected to be a routine massage turned unexpectedly into an offer of sexual contact.

According to a police report, Medina explained that he routinely got massages through a chiropractor, but the service was booked up. He said he decided to try The Woodburn Spa, which had recently opened and offered walk-in appointments.

Medina described a masseuse straddling him at one point, and said he asked her to stop when she grabbed him inappropriately. The woman abruptly ended the massage when he declined sexual contact, he said.

In a brief taped interview with a police detective on Feb. 15, Medina identified the woman who’d given him the massage from a photo lineup. In that police interview, Medina told a detective he’d explained what happened to Swenson, after running into the mayor in a coffee shop.

“I felt like I needed to tell him what happened,” Medina told a detective. “He said, ‘OK, I didn’t know that.’ A few hours later … he gave me a call and said, ‘I have to get something off my chest. The same thing happened to me. The same exact place.’”

Medina declined to speak with OPB in June about his involvement with the complaint, other than to say that he filed a report with police in February and that police had asked him not to discuss an open investigation.

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In a statement Thursday, Medina said that he’d been a victim of sexual assault in the past, and that the experience in the massage parlor renewed that trauma.

“As I processed the experience, I talked about it to with the person I trust the most: my wife,” he wrote. “She said that I should report it to the police – not just because of what happened to me, but because these places are often hubs of human trafficking and exploitation... These can be difficult things to talk about, but we all have a responsibility to act, whether you are a victim or are aware of any possibility that human trafficking and exploitation might be happening in our community.”

Swenson sat down with Woodburn police a day after Medina. In an interview that lasted nearly an hour, he described visiting the spa at 8 p.m. at some point in the previous month — he was not sure of the date, he said. Swenson told police his arm was hurting him, and that the parlor was the only place still open at that time of night.

According to Swenson, a woman at the parlor asked him repeatedly what he wanted, and he replied each time that he wanted “a massage.” But partway through, he said, things became “inappropriate.” After what Swenson said was “three or four minutes” of “mutual groping,” he said he came to his senses and left the business. Swenson told police the woman did not touch his genitals.

Swenson did not think to report the matter until he heard Medina’s account weeks later, he said in a taped police interview.

“I walked away from that thinking ‘There’s a place not to go back to,’” Swenson said in the tape. “But when I heard [Medina’s story] I thought: There’s a larger context.”

In the interview, a detective suggested police are looking into the massage parlor, saying: “We want to hold them responsible, and we want to get justice for the people who have become victims, like you and Mr. Medina.”

“I don’t need justice, so much, other than to forget the whole thing,” Swenson responded.

In an email this week, Swenson declined to offer details about the encounter other than to say: “In short, I was in an inappropriate situation, was briefly inappropriate myself, removed myself from that situation and voluntarily reported it to the police when I learned there was an investigation into illegal activity at this business in my city. I did so knowing that police reports could be made public and I told the truth, however unflattering that might reflect on me, hoping this evidence could be used to prevent further illegal activity.”

Following their separate interviews with police, both Medina and Swenson filed to run for the state Legislature. Both eventually won Democratic primaries, advancing to the November general election.

Medina unwittingly helped make the matter public in June, when he filed a public records request with the city of Woodburn for the police investigation into the spa. As OPB has reported, that request set off alarm bells in Woodburn City Hall, where officials worried they would have a conflict in both working for Swenson and deciding whether his disclosure to police was part of the public record.

On June 23, City Administrator Scott Derickson and City Attorney N. Robert Shields wrote a memo that revealed they had discussed the matter with Swenson in February, recommending he go to police. The city of Woodburn hired an outside attorney to help officials discern which records are required to be released under state law. On Monday, the Woodburn City Council met in executive session to discuss those records out of the public eye.

While Medina and Swenson insist they did nothing wrong, their relation to the spa and a police investigation is likely fodder for rivals in an election year. As of Thursday, Medina was still the Democratic nominee for House District 22, a safely Democratic seat that stretches from Woodburn to Salem.

Swenson, meanwhile, has not yet filed to run for reelection as mayor, Woodburn City Recorder Heather Pierson said Monday. He has until Aug. 30 to do so.

Swenson’s departure from the Woodburn Senate race stirred brief but intense controversy last month, in part because he recommended that a political ally, state Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, replace him as nominee.

Observers in both political parties speculated that Swenson might have planned to drop out all along in order to save a space for Alonso-Leon, who failed in a bid for Congress this year and in doing so forfeited her ability to run for the Legislature. Democratic party officials within the district wound up instead selecting Keizer attorney Rich Walsh, who came in second to Swenson in the May Democratic primary, to fill the slot.

The business where Swenson and Medina say they were caught unawares, The Woodburn Spa, offers full-body massages that range from $50 to $120, depending on duration.

A website for the spa features what seem to be stock photos of young Asian women. The spa also appears to have advertised on bodyrubpage.com, a platform for finding what the site calls “erotic and happy ending massage.” A four-month-old listing bearing the spa’s name and number includes more suggestive photos of young Asian women, and touts a “new sweet cute girl,” along with “a new way of massage that brings you the best five-star relaxation” and a facility that is disinfected daily.

Swenson and Medina weren’t the first people to flag the massage parlor for potentially illegal activity. According to a police report, a person phoned police without giving their name in December to report prostitution at the business, saying that “a friend’s marriage had been ruined by the activity there.” A detective looked up the name of the business owner, then let the matter drop, according to the report.

Records show the business was first registered with the state in October 2021 by a person named Fuxiu Zhen, who lists a Southern California address in some state filings and also is affiliated with massage parlors in Eugene and Portland.

Zhen appears to have filed to dissolve Woodburn Spa LLC in April. But the spa’s website is still up, and a woman who answered the phone there Thursday said the business was accepting new appointments.

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