Polluted by Money: Perfectly Legal: The clear-cut rewards of campaign cash, Oregonian Story

Part Four of Four

March 15, 2019
By Rob Davis, the Oregonian

After announcing she would retire from Oregon’s Legislature early last year, Rep. Deborah Boone freely spent her remaining campaign money — on herself.

The Cannon Beach Democrat wasn’t on the ballot. She had no need for yard signs. But she had $13,000. Some legislators transfer all their leftover money to other candidates or causes. Boone spent her account dry.

She bought tangible goods: A $2,799 Apple computer, $2,000 in Volvo repairs and a $700 set of tires.

She double dipped, using campaign cash to pay bills that taxpayers also reimbursed. There was the $170 dinner during the legislative session, the multi-day $595 hotel stay in Salem, the gasoline and cell phone expenses after the session ended. Charging her campaign let her pocket some of the $10,000 in expense allowances the Legislature provided during her last year in office.

“You know, it’s legal, it’s perfectly legal to do,” Boone told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “I’m not saying I should’ve done it or whatever.”

The failure to limit campaign donations has turned Oregon into one of the biggest money states in American politics, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive found. Corporate interests donate more money per resident in Oregon than in any other state. All that giving worked. Oregon now trails its West Coast neighbors on a long list of environmental protections.

To understand how the vast sums of corporate money can influence lawmakers, it helps to see how they can spend the donations. The money buys more than consultants and mailers.

Oregon allows lawmakers to spend campaign money on perks they’d otherwise have to pay for personally or justify on legislative expense reports. And, by permitting double dips, the state has created a conduit between the nation’s largest companies and legislators’ bank accounts.

The result: Lawmakers owe donors for far more than their legislative seats.

The newsroom combed through 114,000 transactions and $83 million in campaign spending by state lawmakers since 2008. The review found hundreds of cases of double dips that benefited lawmakers’ pocketbooks and other questionable spending that enhanced their lifestyles.

The analysis also uncovered $2.2 million in spending that would have been illegal in at least one other state, including salaries to family members, capitol office furnishings, international luxury travel and penalties for campaign finance violations.

“This is embarrassing for the whole Legislature,” said Robert Stern, a good government advocate and attorney who helped write California’s campaign finance controls. “It undermines the whole campaign finance system when you’re taking campaign money and using it for personal purposes. It appears almost like legalized bribery.”

Lawmakers justified the expenses as essential to winning voter support, legislating or making their jobs pay a sustainable wage. Lawmakers were paid $24,000 in 2018. They collected another $22,000 in per diems during the last long legislative session, in 2017.

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