Referendum committee hiding backers, says watchdog agency

Money in Politics Research Action Project is questioning sources of funding for the referendum campaign aimed at overturning a $800 million tax increase for the Oregon state budget.
Loopholes in Oregon’s disclosure laws allowed the campaign to shield much of its funding by reporting totals of in-kind contributions from key allies, said the organization, which is known for its “Follow the Money” research.

A thorough examination of the Taxpayer Defense Fund’s recent report on fundraising for its signature-gathering efforts indicates that though some contributions meet disclosure goals of “transparency,” the source of dollars behind other donations are difficult to trace and will not be disclosed until April, months after the Feb. 3 special election on Measure 30

Details are available in MiPRAP’s new report, “Transparency or Transparency Defeated,” available online at www.oregonfollowthemoney.org.

The Taxpayer Defense Fund (TDF), which was formed to refer the Oregon legislature’s tax plan to the voters, reported $610,550 in total contributions, including $570,858 in in-kind contributions. (In-kind contributions include any goods or services, but not dollars, donated to a campaign.)

Two-thirds, or $406,130, of all of the contributions came from two committees as in-kind gifts.

Those two committees are Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy (OCSE), which contributed $337,608, and Taxpayer Association of Oregon Ballot Measure PAC (TAOBM), which donated $68,522.

But who gave to them? Their disclosure reports aren’t due until the end of December, over a month after signatures were submitted and almost three weeks after the TDF signature gathering disclosure report was filed. The disclosure reports of other TDF donors won’t be due until April 12, 2004.

TDF engaged in fundraising practices that, whether deliberate or not, appear to be designed to frustrate efforts to follow the money.

TDF could have met the goals of Oregon’s disclosure laws by encouraging its allies to ask donors to send checks directly to TDF. Instead, donations went to the two committees, in effect disguising the real sources of funding.

The personal connections between the TDF and the committees appear to confirm apparent efforts to shield the sources. OCSE executive director Russell Walker also serves as a TDF PAC director, as do two staff members of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for a Sound Economy.

In addition, Jason Williams, treasurer for the TAOBM PAC is also a chief petitioner for referendum, which will appear as Measure 30 on the ballot.

Perhaps recognizing that its disclosure report was less than transparent, TDF provided to the press an itemization of five top contributions made to OCSE. Four Oregon businesses, A-Dec, Inc., Columbia Helicopters, Jeld-Win, Inc., and Seneca Sawmills each gave $55,100 while Freres Lumber gave $27,550.

“When a concerned voter has to look at news articles in addition to the disclosure report and still doesn’t see the complete money trail, the goals of Oregon’s disclosure laws are not met,” said Janice Thompson, executive director of the Money in Politics Research Action Project.

“Oregon’s campaign finance system, by design, depends upon tight disclosure regulations to keep players honest. It’s a system built on trust, and it demands that campaigns meet a high standard of transparency. Instead, this disclosure report is a disturbing example of transparency defeated,” continued Thompson.

“This is just the kind of loophole that I urge the new disclosure commission to tackle,” she continued. “This kind of shielding of donors only serves to deepen voters’ suspicion of the role of money in politics.”

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