In a deal brokered earlier this month, Gov. Kate Brown helped ensure one controversial ballot measure wouldn’t go before voters in November, and that two others would have powerful enemies.
Now, an elections complaint authored by a secretive source — and under review by the Oregon Department of Justice — alleges Brown and others involved in the agreement have broken state law by bringing money into the deal.
“This type of behavior violates not only the letter but also the spirit of election laws intended to secure fair and transparent elections free from inappropriate influence,” reads the complaint, filed with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office last week.
The document was submitted by a Portland resident named Richard Leonetti, but Leonetti said Tuesday he didn’t write it. He wouldn’t reveal who did.
The complaint has roots in a deal revealed by Brown’s re-election campaign on July 5.
Under the arrangement, public sector unions withdrew a proposal that would force publicly traded companies to reveal certain tax information. In exchange, officials from major corporations would oppose two business-backed measures: Measure 103, which would wall off groceries from some new taxes, and Measure 104, which would make it harder for the Legislature to raise revenue.
Such deal making isn’t unheard of, but the election complaint claims the deal Brown brokered came with a payoff: On July 3, Nike donated $100,000 to a new political action committee called the Common Good Fund, controlled by senior Nike employee Julia Brim-Edwards.
“The unions agreed to withdraw an initiative … in exchange for Nike donating $100,000 to a PAC — the Common Good Fund — that will campaign against” the two business-backed tax measures, the complaint says.
The Common Good Fund hasn’t reported spending any money, and neither Nike nor Brim-Edwards has said why it was formed. But the elections complaint says the contribution violated a state law that prohibits accepting “any consideration” in exchange for hindering or delaying “any part of an initiative, referendum, or recall petition.”
Named in the complaint are Brown, Brim-Edwards, and two union officials: Stacy Chamberlain of Oregon AFSCME Council 75 and Steve Demarest of Service Employees International Union Local 503. Violation of the law in question is potentially a class C felony, and carries a possible civil penalty of $10,000.
Brown’s re-election campaign dismissed the complaint as frivolous Tuesday.
“The governor brought folks together to have a conversation and talk about how to move Oregon forward,” said campaign spokesman Christian Gaston, adding that any questions about the $100,000 donation are “something you’d have to ask Nike.”
Ross Grami, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 75, said the union had only just seen the complaint, but “believe it is without merit.”
“We chose not to submit signatures on IP 25,” Grami wrote in an email, referring to the scrapped corporate transparency proposal. “We decided it was of vital importance to focus our efforts on defeating Measure 103 and Measure 104 in November.”
Demarest sent a statement saying essentially the same thing. Nike and Brim-Edwards declined comment.
Leonetti, the complainant, told OPB the ballot measure deal amounted to “Chicago-style corruption” and “a bribe.” But he also volunteered that he didn’t write the complaint — and refused to say who did.
“The people who did work on it do not want to be known,” he said. “They are afraid of retaliation. This has become such a personal attack state that I stepped forward, because I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Leonetti said the complaint didn’t come from any lawmakers. He also said it wasn’t from realtors, who’ve been a major force behind Measure 104.
“It’s really somebody who I suppose at heart would be supportive of these measures that are on the receiving end of the abuse of the $100,000,” Leonetti said. “These are some people who believe this isn’t the way the government should work.”
The allegation against Brown and others is just the latest sign Oregon’s headed into a contentious campaign season.
Last week, the Democratic Party of Oregon filed a complaint against Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Rep. Knute Buehler, suggesting that he moved out of his district and needs to step down as a legislator. A variety of complaints about improper signature gathering in recent months have also resulted in criminal investigations.
Whether officials will find any merit in Leonetti’s complaint isn’t clear — election complaints routinely come to nothing. The DOJ has said it’s reviewing the matter, after it was referred by the secretary of state.
At possible issue in that review is what the definition of “consideration” is under the election law, and whether the $100,000 campaign donation would qualify.
According to a recent Oregon Supreme Court opinion that took up that subject, state statute doesn’t define the term. The court did offer its own definition of “consideration,” however: “The accrual to one party of some right, interest, profit or benefit or some forebearance, detriment, loss or responsibility given, suffered or undertaken by the other.”
Oregon has some of the most permissive campaign finance laws in the nation, and the state constitution’s free speech protections have been interpreted to prohibit any limits on contributions.