Glenn Palmer, Grant County sheriff, and former Rep. Deborah Boone of Astoria. (Photos courtesy of The Oregonian and the Astorian)
Imagine what would happen if someone tipped off the police that you possibly committed a felony.
Perhaps you’d find detectives at your door, notebooks in hand. Or a subpoena compelling you to hand over text messages, emails, phone records and bank statements.
Now imagine that instead, the authorities wait four months after getting the tip, then send you a letter that asks: Did you commit a crime?
You write back: No, I did not. And rather than asking more questions, the authorities take you at your word and close the case.
That’s what happens when Oregon election watchdogs investigate potential violations of campaign laws — the rules that govern the running of races and the spending of tens of millions of dollars seeking to wield influence.
The state’s election overseers have the power to issue subpoenas, but they never use it.
They could send someone to ask questions in person. Instead they send questions in a polite letter.
The Oregon State Elections Division, which employs 20 people and maintains a $6.8 million annual budget, doesn’t dig deep.
The latest example came in August, when the division closed an investigation into former Rep. Deborah Boone, D-Cannon Beach. She had previously told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she funneled a campaign contribution to another candidate at a donor’s request, masking the true source of the money. But she told the Elections Division in writing that she didn’t know what the money was for.
Ann Ravel, the former chairwoman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission and an Obama-era appointee to the Federal Election Commission, said she was stunned by what she described as Oregon’s lackadaisical handling of Boone’s case.
“What is the good of having an enforcement system if there isn’t going to be an actually valid investigation?” Ravel said.
Boone did not respond to a request for comment.
Steve Trout, the Oregon elections director, defended the state’s oversight of campaign finance laws.
“Is it 100 percent rock solid? No,” Trout said. “Is it close? Yeah. We have to make decisions based on resources and priorities on how close to 100 percent we get.”
Two candidates for Oregon secretary of state in 2020 — state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, and Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a Democrat from Terrebonne — said the Elections Division should not simply respond to complaints and pose its questions by mail. Both said more rigorous investigations are warranted for serious allegations of wrongdoing.
“There should be adequate staff to deal with making sure there is rigor – and consequences when there are violations,” Hass said.
“Any complaint that’s received should be given serious consideration and a thorough investigation should be conducted in a professional manner,” McLeod-Skinner said.
She said she did not believe that happened in the state’s investigation of Boone, given the marked divergence in the former lawmaker’s statements to the newsroom and the Elections Division.
“With the contradictory message, something’s not right,” McLeod-Skinner said. “The investigation is not complete.”
Oregon’s weak enforcement gives powerful politicians and their financial supporters an easy out — even when they admit to behavior that may have violated state law.
Take former Rep. Boone.
Boone collected thousands in campaign donations last year after announcing she planned to retire from the Legislature.
Earlier this year, when asked why she would need the money without an election campaign, Boone told The Oregonian/OregonLive the donations weren’t for her. John Helm, the husband of influential state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, gave Boone’s campaign $2,500 in April 2018. Boone said Helm instructed her to give it to Tim Josi, a former Tillamook County commissioner who was running for Boone’s seat.
Helm wrote his check April 18. Boone received it two days later and wrote a check that day for the same amount to Josi’s campaign.
Boone, when asked whether she told Josi the money was actually from Helm, replied: “Yes I did. I asked Helm, ‘Is it OK to say who it’s from?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’” Josi listed the donation in campaign finance disclosures as coming from Boone, not Helm.
Boone told The Oregonian/OregonLive in February that it wouldn’t be evident from looking at Josi’s campaign disclosures where the money really came from. “You never could tell unless I tell you that,” she said.
Neither Josi nor Helm responded to requests for comment.
Alma Whalen, a compliance specialist with the Oregon State Elections Division, said back then that if a candidate knew the true source of a donation but didn’t report it, the person “would appear to be violating” Oregon’s prohibition on contributions in a false name. The same is true for donors if they didn’t tell recipients where a contribution really came from, Whalen said.
A violation is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine.
But when the newspaper published a story about Boone’s questionable transfer, the Elections Division didn’t look into it. Its compliance staff waited four months, until two retirees living in the tiny coastal town of Garibaldi filed a formal complaint citing the newsroom’s reporting about their former representative.
“It is deeply troubling that despite these violations being described in detail by former Representative Boone on the pages of Oregon’s largest newspaper, an investigation has not already been opened,” Jack and Jane Anderson wrote to Secretary of State Bev Clarno, who took office in April.
Whalen then sent letters to Helm, Boone and Josi, requesting copies of the checks and asking questions.
Boone was asked: Did you know what John Helm intended with his contribution?
Contradicting what she told The Oregonian/OregonLive, Boone wrote back to the Secretary of State’s office: “No, I do not.”
Elections officials didn’t push her to reconcile her differing stories. They didn’t send an investigator to meet with her; the Legislature eliminated the office’s two investigators during 2011 budget cuts.
In writing, Helm’s attorney told elections officials that Helm’s intention in donating to Boone’s campaign was “to contribute to the Boone for State Representative committee.” The attorney, Ron Hoevet, did not explain why Helm supported the campaign of someone who wasn’t running for office, nor was he asked. Elections officials didn’t pose any follow-up questions.
Josi told elections officials he wasn’t aware of Helm’s intentions, but said he’d be willing to repay the money with his personal funds if there was an issue.
With three denials in hand, Whalen’s investigation cleared Boone, Josi and Helm. She closed the case Aug. 27, telling the Andersons in a letter that “while the amounts of the checks were the same and the checks were written within two days of each other, there is insufficient evidence to find a violation.”
Trout, the elections director, said there was no need to issue a subpoena. “Why would we spend money on a subpoena when everyone responded to our inquiries?” he said.
As for Boone’s contradiction between what she told state regulators and what she told The Oregonian/OregonLive, Trout said investigators had no way to reconcile it.
“Was she right when she talked to us,” he said, “or right when she talked to you?”
Oregon’s approach to policing campaign money is far more timid than in California and Washington, where a single newspaper story revealing shady spending can prompt regulators to start digging.
In Oregon, regulators investigate only if a registered voter files a signed complaint. Trout said the direction to be complaint-driven was set by the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, and his Democratic predecessor, now-Gov. Kate Brown.
Relying on complaints limits the number of cases that Oregon elections officials investigate.
Records show no one complained after The Oregonian reported in 2017 that Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, wrote a single $10,000 check from his campaign account to his business, Gregory Smith & Company, for “management services.” Oregon candidates are barred from using campaign funds to buy intangibles from themselves and their own companies.
Smith told the newspaper that the check was not for consulting. Instead, it paid his wife, who is his legislative assistant, but not on state payroll, he said.
Without a complaint, no investigation was launched by the Elections Division.
Even when someone does complain, it doesn’t always lead very far. Records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive show Trout’s division has dropped multiple cases because the targets didn’t respond.
In 2014, the Elections Division closed an investigation into whether signature gatherers for a marijuana legalization effort were paid off the books after organizers ignored the state’s questions.
In 2016, the division closed an inquiry into allegations of improper spending during a failed effort to recall Boyd Britton, a Grant County commissioner who clashed with Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer. A campaign contributor stopped responding to the state.
And then there was the case of Palmer himself.
Jim Kelly, a Grant County rancher and the founder of Portland’s Rejuvenation Hardware, filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office about Palmer’s 2016 re-election campaign. Palmer had gained national attention for sympathizing with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers that year.
Kelly reported seeing lawn signs and large signs pop up throughout the county. Two full-page advertisements supporting Palmer appeared in a local newspaper. But the groups that paid for them weren’t registered political action committees, which should have left them unable to accept donations or spend in the election.
Organizers of a Facebook group, Non Grant County Citizens in Support of Sheriff Palmer, thanked donors for raising money to put up three 16-foot banners around the rural county.
On Facebook, Palmer admonished the group’s organizer: “(psssssstttt … just don’t say donation) LOL!!!!!”
“A joke,” Palmer later explained to the Elections Division in a letter. “That is why I put the symbol “LOL” at the end which means laugh out loud.”
Elections officials threatened to issue subpoenas to compel responses from people who ignored their letters. But the regulators didn’t follow through. Records show the case was never resolved; neither Palmer nor the groups faced any penalties. Elections officials simply stopped bothering to ask questions.
“There were flagrant violations of elections law and pretty good evidence of it,” Kelly told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Palmer, who narrowly won reelection, said in an interview that he didn’t know who’d paid for the materials. He said he didn’t raise or spend any money in the 2016 race.
“I really didn’t have a campaign committee or anything like that,” Palmer said. “It was just grassroots people doing their own thing. I didn’t organize anything.”
Kelly said he doesn’t believe election laws are consistently enforced in Oregon. “Not after that experience,” he said.
“They were very polite in telling me that they couldn’t do anything,” Kelly said of Oregon’s election regulators.
A key feature that sets Oregon apart on the West Coast is that its elections regulators answer directly to the elected secretary of state.
Washington and California both enforce campaign finance laws through independent commissions. The bodies were created by voters and are overseen by appointees.
Both states are more transparent than Oregon, posting the results of investigations online, which Oregon doesn’t.
In Washington, the Public Disclosure Commission has issued between 20 and 30 subpoenas in the last five years, spokeswoman Kim Bradford said, compelling disclosure of campaign records, bank records and emails.
Unlike Oregon, which has dropped cases when campaigns don’t respond, “we have never dropped an investigation into a complaint for non-response, nor would we ever,” Bradford said.
In California, the Fair Political Practices Commission’s five-member board must contain members of both political parties and is appointed by the state’s top elected officials — the governor, controller, secretary of state and attorney general.
Investigations in California are led by an attorney and draw on subpoenas when necessary to compel disclosure of bank records, emails and other documents, said Jay Wierenga, a commission spokesman.
“It’s standard investigative practices that pretty much any investigative body that has authority of law operates under,” Wierenga said.
Ravel, the former California elections official, said a good investigation should include interviews with everyone involved and, if necessary, testimony under oath. Interviews are superior to asking questions by letter because they allow follow-up questions, she said, and investigators can more readily detect truthfulness when questioning witnesses.
Oregon’s approach “sends a message to people, particularly people who have an incentive to circumvent the law,” Ravel said. “If they know the investigations and ultimate outcomes are going to essentially find no culpability, why should they comply ever?”
In Oregon, the woman who complained to the secretary of state about Boone’s campaign contributions said the case gave her little faith in Oregon’s campaign finance watchdog.
“I thought for sure the fact that it’s coming out in the open that Oregon would do something really right about this,” Jane Anderson said. “Maybe we could be an example to other places. But nope, they didn’t want to go there.
“It tells me that either they’re afraid of something,” she said, “or they’re content with the status quo.”
Story published with the permission of The Oregonian/OregonLive.