There’s no doubt the allegations of sexual abuse against Whitefish philanthropist Michael Goguen and his counterclaim of extortion by his accuser have raised eyebrows in the Flathead Valley.
The sordid details that spilled forth from a lawsuit filed against Goguen by a 35-year-old former exotic dancer are the stuff of tabloid fodder. Amber Laurel Baptiste claims Goguen sexually abused her during their 13-year relationship.
Goguen, in response, said his accuser is “a woman scorned” who is looking for a payday and revenge.
As the dueling lawsuits play out in a California court, many local residents who know and have worked with Goguen are giving him the benefit of the doubt. Over the past decade the well-known venture capitalist has shared his wealth with a wide variety of nonprofit organizations, pumping millions and millions of dollars into causes that have helped thousands of people in the Flathead Valley and beyond.
“It’s a civil suit of ‘He said, she said.’ It’s not our job to judge,” said Jordan White, executive director of Two Bear Air, a private air rescue operation on which Goguen has spent well over $11 million of his own money.
White acknowledged the “excitement and anxiety” the allegations have created among Flathead Valley residents.
“This whole civil suit is devastating to me,” said White, who pursued Goguen as a benefactor when White was Flathead County undersheriff and was looking for investors to beef up local air rescue operations. “I’ve had such deep respect, and to see him and his family struggling through this is devastating ... all the accusations, the mud that could be slung. With my experience of 16 years in law enforcement, I get it. But we have a court system to deal with it.”
Two Bear Air is one of Goguen’s biggest philanthropic projects in the Flathead Valley. It’s an extraordinary resource that Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry has lauded as “priceless.” There’s nothing like Two Bear Air anywhere else in the country, as far as local law enforcement agencies can tell.
White said Goguen contacted him prior to the news breaking about the allegations against him, and assured White he still is committed to funding the rescue operation.
“He was reiterating that his commitment to the Flathead Valley and saving lives will not change,” White said. “That’s all I really need to know.”
Last weekend, as details of the sexual abuse lawsuit were made public, Two Bear Air completed two rescues, White pointed out.
“That’s where my heart is,” he said. “I speak confidently of where we stand now; he stood by his word and if he says he’s just as committed, then we’re just as committed to being here in the valley.”
Goguen amassed his fortune as a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital, the California firm that has been a significant financial backer of Apple, Google and YouTube, among other high-profile companies. He was released from his position with the company amid the accusations.
For the past decade Goguen has spent part of his time at his sprawling estate at Two Bear Ranch west of Whitefish.
Linda Engh-Grady, executive director of the Whitefish Community Foundation, said the foundation started working with Goguen in 2011 when he began a conservation project around Beaver Lake and Whitefish Lake. He swapped land to get the project started and initially set aside $2 million to pay for the project, she noted.
“Over the years, he donated a total of over $8.2 million to the community foundation in support of this project and the foundation awarded grants to Whitefish Legacy Partners to help pay for the conservation easements,” Engh-Grady said.
Heidi Van Everen, director of the nonprofit Whitefish Legacy Partners and the Whitefish Trail, said in an email statement that while “it’s too bad to hear about the allegations in the news regarding Mr. Goguen; he has been a good friend to the Whitefish community and the Whitefish Trail.
“We value his long-term commitment to conservation, recreation, education and the Whitefish community,” Van Everen said. “The Whitefish Trail would not be what it is today without Mike Goguen.”
The Whitefish Community Foundation manages a permanent endowment fund of close to $1 million that Goguen set up to help sustain the trail project for years to come.
The Whitefish Trail was an opportunity Goguen said he couldn’t pass up.
“I like creating win-win situations,” he told Van Everen and Lisa Jones for a guest column they wrote in August 2012 for the Whitefish Pilot. “At first I thought of putting my own trail through the property I bought for serenity and privacy, but once I saw all the positives of a public trail, I got very comfortable with it. Now that it’s implemented, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
In addition to his conservation support, Goguen has been a big supporter of many area nonprofits, including Human Therapy on Horseback, Alpine Theatre Project, North Valley Music School, CASA for Kids, Whitefish Lake Institute and the North Valley Food Bank.
North Valley Food Bank received considerable support for its new building and endowment campaign from Goguen and today has a sizable permanent endowment at the Whitefish Community Foundation because of his donations. He committed $500,000 to help finish the food bank campaign in 2014.
Goguen also has given more than $1 million to science and technology advancement in local schools through a fund at the community foundation, Engh-Grady said. He is a significant supporter of the Great Fish Community Challenge and the Community Grant Program through the foundation’s Circle of Giving. The challenge raised more than $1.1 million for 32 local nonprofits in 2015.
“Mr. Goguen’s philanthropic commitment to the Whitefish and Flathead area is not just impressive, it is inspiring,” Engh-Grady said. “His passion for giving back to his community has inspired many to give and is what makes this such an impressive community.”
She noted that his conservation work in the Beaver Lakes area was a precursor to the Haskill Basin conservation easement project to protect Whitefish’s drinking water source.
“Our community was inspired by what his philanthropy did for the Beaver Lakes and Whitefish Lake conservation area, and really got behind the Haskill Basin project financially,” she said.
Goguen’s giving seems to know no bounds in Whitefish.
He was a substantial contributor to The Wave fitness center in Whitefish, where one of the rooms bears his name.
Two years ago Goguen committed $2 million to the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force to fund three full-time officers for the agency as well as additional training and technology. Goguen said in a prepared statement at the time that he wanted to make as large a difference as he can and the pledge felt like a very direct way to do that.
“Child predators are the worst kind of criminals,” Goguen said. “I’m thrilled to have a chance to help put as many of them away as possible to make Montana the safe and incredible [place] it should be for raising kids.”
THE FLATHEAD Valley business community also has benefited greatly from Goguen’s investment.
He poured millions of dollars into rebuilding Casey’s, a popular bar and lounge in Whitefish, designing it with a flair reminiscent of the original saloon that opened in 1905. Since the “new” Casey’s was completed in 2012, it has hosted a variety of fundraising events for individuals and nonprofits.
In 2014 Goguen was the keynote speaker at the inaugural Glacier Startup Weekend, an event created to help entrepreneurs pitch ideas, form teams and launch business startups. At that time he was a director of more than 10 companies and had led Sequoia’s investments in companies such as Ardent, Cumulus Networks, Navini, Virident and Pipelinks, along with many others.
Montana West Economic Development leaders were thrilled to have Goguen participate in the Startup Weekend.
“A visionary like Michael Goguen will inspire current entrepreneurs, and those that dream of starting a business, to take action, encouraging them to make their dreams become reality,” Kim Morisaki of Montana West Economic Development said prior to the startup event.
TWO BEAR FARM is another of Goguen’s recent business projects. The 8-acre farm west of Whitefish, operated by Todd and Rebecca Ulizio, is a community-supported agriculture farm where members purchase shares before the season begins and then receive weekly allotments of fresh produce during the growing season.
Goguen recently purchased the 11.6-acre former North Valley Hospital site and had the old hospital demolished with the intent of restoring the property to green space until a long-term vision for the prime real estate near the Whitefish River is developed.
In other business ventures, he supported the Whitefish Review in its startup phase.
“His early support of the journal gave us a boost of confidence and provided some funds to help with printing costs,” Whitefish Review founder Brian Schott said.
Goguen also is a lead investor in Proof Research, a high-end weapons manufacturer near Columbia Falls.
Kevin Gartland, director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said several of the businesses Goguen has supported are Chamber members. He said there’s no doubt Goguen is “serious about making a positive impact in the community.
“He has been an active philanthropist involved with a number of worthy causes,” Gartland said. “From that perspective it’s kind of a surprise and a little dismaying to have this [lawsuit] played out in the newspapers. It’s one party’s accusation against another ... we’ll wait to see how things shake out.”
The sexual abuse allegations against Goguen have been reported by a multitude of national news media organizations.
Goguen’s attorney, Diane Doolittle, issued a statement this week, calling the lawsuit a “vile collection of lies and a transparent attempt to destroy the reputation and good name” of her client.
“The overwhelming evidence — as cited in our cross complaint for extortion – shows that she [Baptiste] is a disgruntled former lover who had a consensual relationship with him starting in her 20s,” Doolittle said. “This isn’t a case of human trafficking, but an age-old story of a jilted lover looking for revenge. We are eager to fight these defamatory and outlandish allegations and tell the truth. We look forward to our day in court, where facts trump fiction.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.