James Cleavenger’s Response to “New” 2005 Allegation of Sexual Assault

Editor’s note: When Eugene Weekly reporter Donny Morrison reached out to district attorney candidate James Cleavenger about sexual assault allegations against him, he requested the paper post his full statement linked to the story. The statement is below, unedited. 

The following is my response to questions posed to me last night (5/5/20) by a Eugene Weekly reporter, regarding a purported allegation of “sexual assault” from 2005 (15 years ago) when I was attending my first year of law school at the Willamette University College of Law in Salem.  I apologize in advance for any grammatical errors (I only had a couple of hours to write this to meet the reporter’s “deadline”), and for some of the more “graphic” details.  In keeping with my commitment to transparency, some such “graphic” language was required in order to provide the most detailed and accurate account of what I remember.

I only attended Willamette University for my first year of law school (from August 2005 to the summer of 2006), before I transferred to the University of Oregon School of Law, where I finished my Juris Doctorate in 2008.  I initially chose Willamette because they offered me a lot of scholarship money.  I transferred to the UofO because it was a much better law school with a higher ranking.  In fact, at the time, UofO was ranked in the 1st/top “tier” of law schools, whereas Willamette was in the 2nd or 3rd tier.  So even though it meant I’d be spending more money on my legal education without the scholarships, it was the best decision because it meant (at least theoretically) I’d get a better education, have more job prospects, etc.  

According to the EW reporter, this allegation was brought to the attention of his Editor earlier this week.  Specifically, the allegation as conveyed to me, was that Shenoa Payne, a former law school classmate or mine, alleged the following:

On September 18, 2005, she picked you up from the PDX Airport, with the plan being you’d both spend the night at her house in Portland, before she’d give you a ride back to Salem, where you both went to school, the next morning.  She alleges that you repeatedly pressured her to have intercourse and that she expressed that she didn’t want too. She says she was sexually assaulted that night after you pushed yourself on top of her. She says the next day she drove you to school without saying a word and that you two never spoke again.

Although it’s been 15 years, I do remember Ms. Payne, I remember most of the details about that night, and I categorically deny that a “sexual assault” of any kind took place.  Here is what I remember:

According to my 2005 annual Day-Planner (I’ve saved them as far back as the late 1990’s for some reason), I flew into PDX at 2am on September 19, 2005 and Ms. Payne picked me up.  The original plan was that we’d drive straight back to Salem and stay up studying for a test we had later that same morning, with our mutual friend Todd, who was in love with Ms. Payne.  But when I landed, Ms. Payne said she was too tired to drive to Salem right away and suggested we instead sleep for a few hours together in her bed in her apartment in Portland.  

I met Ms. Payne and Todd (who was my roommate) when we all started law school together about a month before, and we quickly became good friends.  But problems began to arise when a “love triangle” developed, wherein Todd was romantically interested in Ms. Payne, but Ms. Payne was romantically interested in me, and I had promised Todd that I would not try to date Ms. Payne, even though I was definitely attracted to her too.

A week prior to this incident during a party at the house Todd and I shared with I think 3 additional law students, Ms. Payne got really intoxicated and started kissing me, grabbing my genitals, and telling me how she wanted to “have sex,” all while we were standing in full public view.  I am certain this was witnessed by at least 1 other female classmate, but I can’t remember who because it was 15 years ago and because this has never been an issue until now.  I was embarrassed because this was happening in public and because Ms. Payne was obviously way too intoxicated.  I also felt guilty because I knew Todd really liked her.  So as soon as I could excuse myself, I went into my bedroom, locked the door, and pretended to be asleep so that Ms. Payne could not get to me.  I could hear her trying to get in until one of her friends came and got her and took her away.

Although nothing happened that night (because I didn’t let it, due to her level of intoxication), it did further spark the attraction between us.  So I was not surprised when she suggested we sleep together in her bed when I landed at the airport (not that I had much of a choice since she was my ride back to Salem).  

As you might expect from 2 people in their 20’s who are attracted to each other sleeping in the same bad, we started “making-out.”  Things progressed and I eventually asked her (very specifically and out loud) if she wanted me to “go down on her?”  She very clearly said “yes.”  So I performed oral sex on her.  After she climaxed, I asked her if she wanted to have regular (vaginal) sex.  We discussed, and she said something like she felt things were going “too fast” and we should slow down.  I took this as a “no,” so we stopped and did NOT have intercourse!  I was not angry or upset by the denial.  In fact, I was a little relieved because I wasn’t ready either.

I distinctly remember the drive to Salem because it was painful, due to an acute case of what is medically termed “Epididymal Hypertension,” but better known as, “blue balls,” caused by not having sex.  The drive was also not silent.  One, we were going through flashcards Ms. Payne had made in order to study for our test.  Two, we had both received texts from Todd, who was extremely upset that we had stayed the night in Portland.  We discussed at length what to tell him or not because we didn’t want to hurt his feelings and we knew we’d be interrogated when we got back.  I was also feeling a lot of guilt because I had promised Todd I wouldn’t pursue Ms. Payne and because I was still in love with a French woman I had been dating in Liverpool, England, where I had been living prior to moving to Salem for law school.  We discussed these issues as well, and as we neared Salem, I told her I thought it probably was not a good idea to continue seeing each other “romantically.” 

Things became awkward after we got back because Todd wasn’t stupid and he knew something had happened and that I had broken my promise to him.  I came clean with him and admitted Ms. Payne and I had been “romantic” but that I had told her we should stop out of respect to Todd, who at that time was my really good friend and had stronger feelings for her than I did.  Shortly thereafter, Todd expressed his love for Ms. Payne to her and they started dating and I stayed out of their way, so as not to make things “weird.”  We continued living together as roommates for a couple more months (we all had to move out over winter break because the owner of the house was selling it or something) but our friendship never recovered.

During the next couple of weeks, I remember hearing a few rumblings about Ms. Payne thinking I had been a “jerk” to her or that perhaps she thought I tried to “move to fast,” but things settled down pretty quickly and we finished the rest of the school year without incident or drama.  And there was never a “sexual assault” allegation until now.

To the best of my knowledge and memory, this incident was never “investigated” by anyone.  It never came up when I transferred to the UofO (so I assume Willamette never investigated it), it was not an issue when I applied for bar membership with the Washington State Bar Association or when I applied for reciprocity with the Oregon State Bar Association (I have attached all of the email correspondence I received from the Oregon State Bar during my application process, which makes no mention of this), and it has never come up in the dozen or so background checks I’ve had to go through at the state and federal level over the past 15 years.  

I understand why Todd was angry with me.  I broke my promise to him.  But Ms. Payne’s animosity towards me afterwards was perplexing, because to me, I did everything exactly like you’re supposed to: I did not take advantage of her the night she was wasted, I asked for and received her express verbal consent to do the one minor sex act we did do (which was primarily for her gratification not mine), and I took “no” for an answer when I asked her if she wanted to have intercourse.  And I certainly do not understand on what basis or even why she’s making this allegation now.

Sexual assault is against my very ethos.  Anyone who knows me would tell you I’m not some kind of degenerate who would force, compel, or coerce anyone into unwanted sexual activity.  I was raised by a single mother who instilled in me a strong sense of ethics and decency that I’ve been proud of all my life.  If I ever did something this depraved, she would disown me if I didn’t kill myself first.  

I’m not really sure how to defend myself against this type of allegation because despite the staleness and suspicious timing of this allegation, in the end it really comes to “he said she said.”  However, I am willing to take a polygraph if my accuser will too.

Naturally, I feel very strongly about this and I’m quite upset about it.  It is just the latest in a string of slanderous personal attacks I’ve had to endure during this campaign.  I expected some mudslinging, but this has become grotesque.  

First there were the attempts to tarnish my otherwise exemplary police career (Medal of Honor recipient, endorsed by my previous Chief at Coburg PD, graduated 1st in my class at the Reserve Police Academy, letter of support signed by every member of the Junction City Police Department when I transferred to Coburg PD, whistleblower on police misconduct, and described by my current Chief in my latest annual evaluation as “one of the finest police officers that has worked for me in 25 years of law enforcement,” etc.) by the anonymous internet trolls with obvious connections to my opponent because they knew a lot of specific non-public information (but not enough to know the truth) about cases I’ve been involved with, that they tried to twist into some of the most bizarre allegations I’ve ever read, including trying to insinuate I may have murdered someone (I did not).

Then there were the coordinated “complaints” to the Oregon State Bar and Secretary of State, supposedly written by 2 of my opponent’s biggest supporters and donors, (one of whom even has the same Campaign Director & Treasurer as my opponent), which were “leaked” to the press (to the EW Editor again) and filed just before ballots came out so I won’t have enough time to be exonerated before the election.  Then last Thursday, 2 hours before my first debate, I received a phone call from yet another EW reporter, asking me if I had been arrested the night before by the FBI because they’d just received an “anonymous tip” claiming that I was (I was not by the way), and now this.  

I knew politics was nasty and I can certainly understand why no one wants to run for office anymore.  But I’m not going to quit.  I know that running for DA to try to fix our criminal justice system is the right thing to do.  I also know, and my friends know, that I am a good person with a strong moral compass.  And I still have faith in our electoral process and I believe that voters are smart enough to make the connections and see this for what it is: a baseless and shameful political smear campaign.

-James Cleavenger, JD, LLM

Candidate for Lane County DA

Date:  5/6/2020