Loophole makes it tough to follow money in Oregon campaigns

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s campaign finance law was built around a tradeoff.

Any donor — whether in-state, out-of-state, special interest or corporate — can give unlimited amounts of cash to any state candidate as long as there is complete transparency. This keeps citizens informed and candidates aware their actions are public.

But there’s a hole in the system.

The public can only see single transactions on the state’s website and in public records. If a candidate passes contributions to another candidate, or to a re-election fund for fellow party members, the public can no longer see the money’s original donor.

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These transactions are known as pass-throughs — contributions that are essentially donations from one legislator to another, allowed in unlimited quantity under Oregon law.

Critics, including past and present lawmakers, say this allows a loophole in transparency.

Consider one example. In April 2016, Citizen Action for Political Education, an election-focused division of the public employees union SEIU, donated $10,000 to House Speaker Tina Kotek’s campaign fund. In August 2016, Kotek moved $30,000 to Future PAC House Builders, a pool fund designed to help elect Democrat candidates. It fulfilled this duty in late October by sending $8,500 to Ray Lister in a last-ditch effort to help him overcome Republican Richard Vial.

The public can see each individual transaction on the Secretary of State’s website, but they can’t see the web that connects them. There’s no way to tell whether it was CAPE money that funded Lister’s campaign, some of Kotek’s, or both.

The finance database doesn’t track money once it moves through more than one committee or campaign fund, and candidates aren’t required to disclose original sources for pass-through contributions.

“That would be a really difficult thing to do,” said Jennifer Hertel, a compliance specialist and lead worker on the campaign finance team at the Secretary of State’s office.

Hertel said the Legislature has a strong hand in what her office is working on. So, until regulation requires they expand to that level of transparency, it’s unlikely to happen.

“Until you have something like that as a mechanism to require it, the resources are going to be used for other things,” she said.

Transactions between legislators, or between legislators and re-election funds, are…

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