Politics

Progressive donor puts big money into Oregon’s two contested races for district attorney

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
May 3, 2022 11:59 p.m.

Aaron Boonshoft donated $275,000 in April to unseat prosecutors in Washington and Marion counties

In a matter of weeks, a wealthy Portlander named Aaron Boonshoft, largely unknown in progressive political circles, has become the largest financial backer to challengers hoping to unseat district attorneys in Washington and Marion counties.

In April, Boonshoft made two campaign contributions totaling $225,000 to Brian Decker, a public defender running on a progressive platform to unseat Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton. He also donated $50,000 to Spencer Todd, also a public defender, running against Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson. Barton and Clarkson are joint heads of the Oregon District Attorney’s Association; both are established prosecutors with significant political sway. Decker and Todd are not as well known.

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Marion County Courthouse in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

Marion County Courthouse in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Even less well-known is the multimillionaire donating to their campaigns and what’s behind Boonshoft’s new interest in local politics.

“I’m passionate about advocating for human rights,” Boonshoft said in a written statement to OPB. “I believe we can create a world in which health, safety and justice is accessible to everyone. And that a crucial step is reforming our criminal justice system.”

Boonshoft declined an interview request.

In addition to spending $275,000 to unseat two prosecutors running on a tough-on-crime platform, Boonshoft is the chief petitioner of a ballot measure that would decriminalize, though not legalize, sex work in Oregon. It’s not clear if there is enough momentum to propel it onto the November ballot. (Editor’s note: Boonshoft withdrew his petition for the ballot measure to decriminalize sex work on Thursday, May 5.)

Last year, Willamette Week reported Boonshoft donated $1.2 million to the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, a New York-based legal nonprofit “that defends the human rights of sex workers by destigmatizing and decriminalizing people in the sex trades through free legal services, education, research, and policy advocacy.” Through a spokesperson, Boonshoft told OPB he’s “also a supporter of anti-trafficking efforts.” He donated $50,000 last year to organizations that fight human trafficking.

Boonshoft is the son of a wealthy Ohio commodities trader, according to Willamette Week. Divorce records give a sense of his wealth; his ex-wife received tens of millions of dollars and numerous properties. Campaign finance records show Boonshoft donated about $52,000 in 2004, largely to Democratic parties outside of Oregon. Until last month, he had never before made direct political contributions to candidates in local Oregon races.

“I was inspired to get involved in Brian Decker’s campaign when I heard the story about the women assaulted at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, and the current District Attorney didn’t prosecute,” Boonshoft’s statement read. “I’ve donated money and I’ve been volunteering my time to the campaign.”

In March, OPB reported on Tony Klein, a nurse at Coffee Creek who at least 27 women have accused of sexually assaulting them or making inappropriate comments. The Washington County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Klein in 2018, citing conflicting stories from the incarcerated women.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently unsealed a 25-count indictment, charging Klein with sexually assaulting 12 women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Federal prosecutors alleged Klein deprived the women of their right to not face cruel and unusual punishment, a protection afforded under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Decker has seized on the Klein case, calling it a key failure of Barton’s tenure.

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In an interview on Tuesday with OPB, Barton said he was “very happy” the U.S. Department of Justice was able to file charges against Klein.

“Their charges are based on evidence we in the DA’s four years ago did not have, and that includes an FBI investigation and deposition testimony,” Barton told OPB. “I know from talking to my contacts in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, they would not have been able to file charges based on the evidence we had, which is part of the reason why there was an additional investigation that occurred after we reviewed the case.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, citing the open case.

Barton said voters should be wary of what he believes are the motivations behind Boonshoft’s donations.

“When you have people who donate to campaigns, the people should be aware of that so they can understand what, if any, promises or treatment or special treatment someone might receive,” Barton told OPB. “Mr. Boonshoft is someone who advocates for an extremist, or fringe position of decriminalizing prostitution and pimping, which would make our community less safe. I think by him donating $275,000 to two DA races, that should raise some red flags for some people.”

Barton’s largest campaign contribution so far was $100,000 from Nike co-founder Phil Knight in December. Nike’s world headquarters reside in Washington County.

Decker’s campaign said they were surprised by Boonshoft’s outreach and the size of the donations. Prior to the donations, Decker and Boonshoft met at a coffee shop.

“They talked about the need for reform in the Washington County criminal justice system,” said Sonny Mehta, Decker’s campaign manager.

Mehta said the two did not discuss sex work or decriminalizing it.

“Brian would only take a position on reform after examining any specific policies in the legislation, but believes that all public safety laws should seek to protect vulnerable people from harm,” Mehta said.

He said the donations have been helpful in a very crowded election cycle.

While it’s less than the Washington County’s DA’s race, Boonshoft’s $50,000 donation in Marion County is also the largest financial contribution in that district attorney’s race.

Prior to the donation, Boonshoft met with Todd. During their meeting, Boonshoft didn’t bring up any policy initiatives, according to Nathaniel Applefield, a campaign consultant for Todd’s campaign.

Clarkson, the Marion County district attorney, said she finds it “odd that there would be a man that wants to promote the protection of sex workers.” Not only did Clarkson question Boonshoft’s motivations, but she said he’s targeting the only two contested district attorney races in the state.

“The fact that this guy is funding DA campaigns — DA’s who have a lot of decision-making authority in how to intervene in these kinds of criminal cases — he’s doing that on purpose,” Clarkson said. “That is absolutely a calculated move on his part.”

Ballots for the May 17 primary must be postmarked or returned to a drop site by 8 p.m.

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