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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Good law, big flaw

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Good law, big flaw

Although we’re fans of the Oregon law that requires political  committees to regularly report their donations and expenditures, the law is not perfect.

Its purpose is unimpeachable: To ensure that the public knows who bankrolls candidates and citizen-sponsored measures such as recalls and initiatives.

But there’s a peculiar provision in the law that seems to us to work against that basic premise of financial transparency.

Last year’s failed attempt to recall Baker City Councilors Dennis Dorrah and Beverly Calder highlights this troubling aspect of the law.

First, though, the good stuff.

Campaigns that receive more than $100 in cash or in-kind contributions from a person in the same calendar year must list that contributor’s name on the campaign’s forms. Those forms are easily accessible online via the Secretary of State’s Orestar system (https://secure.sos.state.or.us/eim/jsp/CEMainPage.jsp).

Now for the glitch.

A contributor who buys something for a campaign — pays a bill for printing pamphlets, for instance — with the expectation of being reimbursed later, does not have to be immediately listed, by name, on the campaign’s reporting forms.

These transactions are known as “personal expenditures for reimbursement.”

And unfortunately, later reimbursement can be a whole lot later. Years later, in fact, if both the campaign and the contributor don’t mind the delay.

The contributor’s name must be shown on a report only when one of two things happens, said Jennifer Hertel, a compliance specialist with the state Elections Division.

One, when the campaign reimburses the contributor, that transaction must be listed on a reporting form, including the name of the contributor.

Or, two, if the contributor agrees to forgive the debt, then the amount originally paid must be listed as an in-kind contribution and shown as a transaction, complete with the contributor’s name, on the campaign’s reporting form.

There is, however, no time limit, Hertel said.

The use of personal expenditures for reimbursement is relatively common and, to reiterate, it’s legal, Hertel said.

Which brings us back to last year’s Baker City recall campaign.

The committee in favor of the recall listed three people, by name, who contributed more than $100, but less than $200, in cash.

But two larger contributions— including the campaign’s biggest — are listed on reporting forms only as “personal expenditure for reimbursement.”

One is for $666.10, the other for $2,041.40. Both were made in early October of 2009.

Yet almost eight months later we don’t know who spent that money, which accounts for more than half the campaign’s total contributions.

And according to Oregon law, the Recall Dorrah & Calder Committee doesn’t have to disclose the name of the contributor (or contributors) until they’re either reimbursed or they decide to forgive the debt.

This meets the letter of the law, but it blatantly violates the spirit.

The bottom line is that either an individual or a group shelled out more than $2,700 to assist the recall campaign last fall.

And although the purpose of the campaign financing law is to ensure citizens know who wrote those checks, the very law also allows campaigns to avoid, indefinitely albeit legally, that very requirement.

The Legislature should look into eliminating, or at least constricting, this loophole when it convenes in January.

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