By Janine Robben | The Portland Tribune | May 16, 2003
Stephen Houze may be the closest thing to a celebrity lawyer that Portland has ever seen.
In the last year, he has defended Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire and Portland police officer Gina Hoesly in two highly publicized drug possession cases, successfully arguing both times that police had found drugs illegally.
He got auto magnate Scott Thomason who came to see him shortly after causing a traffic accident and leaving the scene in and out of criminal court with surprisingly little fanfare. And now he's at the side of terrorism defendant Maher Mofeid Hawash, representing him for a fee that will, according to a friend of Hawash, bankrupt the former Intel Corp. software engineer and his wife.
So why is Houze a "top 20" law school graduate and former public defender, so hot after a 30-year career spent representing first Portland's poorest and now its richest criminal defendants?
The answer is simple.
"I think Steve Houze is probably the best criminal-defense attorney in the history of this state," says attorney Donald Bourgeois, who worked with him at the Metropolitan Public Defenders' office in the 1970s.
It is an opinion shared, in only slightly less absolute terms, by the dozen Portland area prosecutors and defense attorneys contacted by the Tribune.
Terese "Terry" Gustafson, the former Clackamas County district attorney in whose disbarment proceedings Houze was a key prosecution witness, would not talk about him. Houze himself also declined to be interviewed, citing personal and professional privacy concerns.
"He's reached the point in his career where he can pick and choose the cases he takes," said Michael Regan, a Clackamas County deputy district attorney. Regan says he once dismissed a child-rape case against a Portland police officer in the middle of trial because of evidence Houze had found through "dogged determination and preparation."
"Steve finds statements and witnesses and versions of events that detectives don't always uncover," said Regan, who worked for Gustafson during her protracted battle with Houze and the Oregon State Bar before she was disbarred in March 2002. "He gets a whole other side of the story. You end up looking like your investigation wasn't as thorough. I've learned how to be a better prosecutor from watching him."
But, Regan said, preparation is not the sole secret of Houze's success.
"He's very adept at PR," Regan said. "He never overhypes a defense or grandstands, but the minute he steps in front of a microphone, he's very much aware that he's presenting a defense.
"I noticed this with (Hawash)," Regan continued. "He's (Houze is) talking about how sketchy the government's case is. I've noticed over the years that he doesn't say much when his client wouldn't benefit from publicity. I'm not saying he's manipulative. I'm saying he's intelligent: He understands the power of persuasion."
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the contrast between the informal news conference in which Houze criticized the government's case against Hawash in May and his handling of Scott Thomason's criminal traffic case last October.
Thomason, whose face is known to many in the Portland area because of his car commercials, was charged with hitting another vehicle while driving in downtown Portland on the evening of Oct. 3, 2002.
The case had potential for explosive negative publicity.
According to witness statements quoted in police reports, Thomason got out of his car, inspected its extensive front-end damage and started to walk toward the other vehicle, then got back into his own car and left the scene. "I found it alarming how fast he took off," one witness is quoted as saying in the police reports on the investigation.
But, less than one month later, Thomason pleaded guilty as charged to what commonly is known as hit and run and was sentenced to probation, with little publicity about the fact that his sentence included alcohol evaluation and treatment, despite no evidence that he was intoxicated at the time of the crime.
The requirement was based on a previous hit-and-run accident in which Thomason allegedly was involved but was not charged at the request of the victim. Included in the report of last October's case was a statement from the officer who had investigated the previous incident. The officer said that he remembered thinking alcohol might have been involved.
Thomason could not be reached for comment.
While accolades about Houze's professional life are abundant, information about the 57-year-old Southwest Portland resident's personal life is scarce.
He is "just looking for a better place to live,"according to his old friend Bourgeois, a Cincinnati native who came west after graduating from Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tenn., in 1972.
"It was a big, second Western migration, with lots of idealism," Bourgeois said of the times that brought both him and Houze to Oregon and caused them to take their first law jobs as poorly paid public defenders in Portland.
"I don't think he ever had anything else in mind," Bourgeois said of Houze's career as a defense attorney, first in the public defenders' office, now in private practice in downtown's PacWest Center. "Every time I sit down with lawyers, the subject always turns to doing something else with our lives. The only exception is Steve. He wanted to do this from Day One, and he's never looked back."
He works long hours, although not as many as defense attorney Patrick Birmingham once believed.
"We used to park in the same building," said Birmingham, who was Houze's co-counsel on a police civilian-death case and his adversary in the Gustafson proceedings. "If I got there at 6 a.m., his car was there. If I stopped by after a movie on Saturday night, his car was there. Finally I said to him, 'Steve, I can never seem to be here when you aren't already here.' And he said, 'I don't have room for the car at home, so I leave it parked here.'"
Nonetheless, said Birmingham, "I suspect he's a workaholic."
In addition to Houze's own work schedule, his wife of almost 22 years, Portland attorney Susan Svetkey, works full ime as a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge. The couple have two teenage children, and they spend time with Houze's adult daughter from a previous marriage and her two children, who live in California.
How do they manage? "You can say that I laughed when asked that question," said Svetkey, who otherwise declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.
Houze lacks the flash of a Johnnie Cochran or a Gerry Spence: In fact, with his balding pate, graying hair scraping his collar in back and wireless reading glasses perched unselfconsciously far down his nose, he looks more like Ben Franklin, although his friends say he does have a penchant for motorcycles, vintage Volvos and triple-black Porsche convertibles.
Nor does he engage in the courtroom histrionics typical of other representatives of well-known, and/or well-heeled, clients.
"He sure is a quiet fellow for a celebrity lawyer," a reporter said after one of Houze's recent court appearances on the Hawash case. "I could barely hear him."
One of the most notable aspects of Houze's career has been the frequency with which he has defended both police officers charged with crimes and civilians charged with crimes in which police officers were the victims.
In 2002, the latter group included both Linda Abeles, who was convicted of critically injuring Portland motorcycle officer Christopher Guzman in an accident, and teenager Dustin Gomez, who was convicted of shooting Portland officer George Weseman Jr. in the head as Weseman tried to handcuff him. Abeles pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of intoxicants and to felony assault for the nearly fatal injuries she caused when the car she was driving hit Guzman's motorcycle; Gomez pleaded guilty to attempted murder and other charges.
But Weseman said he expects Houze's ability to work both sides of the fence to be compromised by the case involving him and Gomez.
"As far as his involvement with Gomez goes, be it for money or exposure, I don't think he'll be on our (union) list due to that involvement," Weseman said. "It's a conflict for him to represent both us and people who try to kill us."
Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, declined to comment on Houze.
Weseman's fellow officer, Gina Hoesly, said she thought about him when the Gomez family hired Houze after she had retained him for her drug possession case.
"No doubt, when you shoot a cop, that's wrong," said Hoesly, who was punched and kicked by a suspect in 2000 and has been on medical disability since. Hoesly, who says she was in the process of being medically retired from the bureau when she was charged with drug possession, is still off work but remains a bureau employee. Both her case and Stoudamire's are being appealed by the state to the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Nonetheless, Hoesly said, she continued with Houze, who subsequently convinced a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge that her constitutional right to privacy had been violated when police searched her exterior garbage can for drugs.
"I think he probably keeps his personal opinions out of his cases and just does his job as a lawyer," she said. "Not everybody can do that. It's very, very hard to do."
It's also, as Hoesly and others said, very expensive.
While Houze doesn't publicize a fee schedule, the one case he's known to have handled on a per-hour basis in recent years allegations of dognapping against Portland arts maven Paige Powell reportedly cost her $300 an hour, high for the local criminal defense market. Powell and former news anchor Kim Singer were accused of having taken a tied-up dog from a West Hills store; they later settled civilly with the dog's owner.
Jeffrey Mutnick, Houze friend and former fellow public defender, represented the dog's owner and credits Houze with keeping Powell from becoming a criminal defendant in the 2002 dog disappearance that first was publicized by Phil Stanford in his Tribune column.
More typically, Mutnick said, defense attorneys in Houze's class estimate the cost of a case and collect at least a large portion of that amount upfront.
In Hawash's case, that cost will "basically bankrupt" him and his wife, according to their friend Rohan Coehlo, despite Houze's having taken the case at a reduced rate. "It's bigger than six figures," Coehlo bemoaned.
Hoesly declined to reveal what retaining Houze has cost her but said that "you've got to sell your soul to be able to afford him."
Hoesly said that paying such a price has been well worth it.
"If you want the finest wine, you don't go to the store and ask for Mad Dog," she said. "When you need representation, you want the best. And he's the best."