A Chinese-Owned Company Donated Thousands of Dollars to Oregon Candidates. Was That Illegal?

The company now faces a federal elections complaint, raising questions about its contributions to Ted Wheeler and John Kitzhaber.

Four years ago, American Pacific International Capital cast a long shadow over Portland—literally.

The Chinese-owned investment company's holdings included the 35-story KOIN Center skyscraper and the Oregon Pacific Building, a five-story downtown edifice that once housed the Greek Cusina nightclub and the iconic purple octopus perched above the front door.

But American Pacific International Capital, or APIC, also made forays into another landscape: politics.

From 2010 through 2012, Oregon campaigns and politicians—including Ted Wheeler, Charlie Hales, Tobias Read and John Kitzhaber—accepted nearly $25,000 in donations from APIC, which was incorporated in Portland.

The company has since moved to San Francisco and sold its Portland holdings. But its political contributions now face renewed scrutiny, thanks to a federal elections complaint. It alleges APIC violated a federal law that prohibits foreign nationals from making campaign contributions.

The complaint, filed Aug. 10 with the Federal Election Commission, claims that APIC violated these rules when Chinese nationals on APIC's board decided to donate $1.3 million to Right to Rise USA, the super-PAC supporting Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential bid.

"This is an extraordinary case," Brendan Fischer, associate counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C., campaign finance reform nonprofit that filed the complaint against APIC. "We have the evidence. This was a contribution that violated the foreign national contribution ban."

In an emailed statement, APIC tells WW it did nothing wrong.

"American Pacific International Capital takes compliance with federal campaign finance laws seriously," the statement reads. "The company looks forward to discussing these allegations with the Federal Election Commission should the commission decide to proceed."

Local watchdogs say it's unclear whether APIC broke any federal laws with its contributions to Wheeler, Hales and Kitzhaber. But they say the federal complaint raises questions about whether Oregon's notoriously loose campaign finance laws are allowing foreign nationals to influence elections.

"It's a big deal," says Daniel Lewkow, political director of Common Cause Oregon, an election reform nonprofit. "This discovery about APIC is scary. It makes us all really nervous about the integrity of our elections."

Molly Woon, spokeswoman for the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, tells WW that unlike the feds, Oregon has no rules against political donations from foreign nationals.

"Oregon election law is silent on the matter of foreign contributions," Woon tells WW in an email. "Thus, there has been no clear violation of Oregon election law in this case.

"There was nothing to raise suspicion at the time of these contributions," Woon adds. "They were received from a company with an Oregon address."

APIC moved its headquarters to San Francisco in 2014. Its last Oregon properties were sold in 2015, although Wilson Chen, its founder and longtime president, still owns a home in Lake Oswego. Chen, an American citizen, founded Wilson Environmental Consulting, the company that would become APIC, in 1998.

Now, the company's portfolio consists largely of factories and luxury hotels in China and residential and commercial real estate in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Chen did not respond to WW's requests for comment.

Campaign finance records show that between 2010 and 2012, APIC gave a total of $24,100 to Oregon candidates and campaigns.

The donations included $3,100 to Mayor Charlie Hales, $1,000 to Oregon Treasurer and Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, $1,000 to state Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton), and $6,500 to then-Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Other recipients included mayoral candidate Eileen Brady, Metro candidate Helen Ying, Portland City Council candidate Mary Nolan, and state Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem).

Oregon politicians who received APIC's money say they have no connections to the company.

"Treasurer Wheeler does not recall anything in particular about APIC, aside from an introduction and donation in 2010," says Michael Cox, spokesman for Wheeler. "There was no continuing contact."

Wheeler's staff says he has no plans to return the money.

"Had I known then what I know now, I would have directed my campaign not to take money from APIC in 2010," Read, who is running for state treasurer, tells WW in an emailed statement.

Hales' office declined to comment because the mayor is traveling.

The contributions to Bush's campaign were first reported by the Intercept, an online media outlet that focuses on government wrongdoing.

APIC donated a total of $1.3 million to Right to Rise USA, a super-PAC supporting Jeb Bush's presidential run, in the spring and summer of 2015. The donation did not come out of the blue—Jeb Bush's brother, Neil, sits on the company's board.

The complaint filed with the FEC alleges that the decision to donate to Right to Rise ultimately—and illegally—came from a board of directors that included Chinese citizens.

Federal campaign finance laws bar foreign nationals from making any contribution, donation, or expenditure in any way associated with any U.S. election. Foreign-owned companies may only contribute to U.S. elections if the donated money comes solely from business in the U.S. and if the decision to donate comes from a committee of legal U.S. residents.

But it's unclear if APIC's committee followed those rules. The federal complaint alleges the board included Chinese citizens. APIC declined to discuss the makeup of its board, either at the time of the donation to Bush or when it gave money to Oregon candidates.

"As for the company's political donations, we will not discuss them beyond the required disclosures which we believe were made in compliance with federal campaign finance laws and regulations," the company's statement says.

Though the FEC complaint does not concern APIC's Oregon contributions, Fischer says there's still cause for suspicion.

"If APIC didn't follow the correct procedures in making the contributions to the super-PAC supporting Jeb Bush, it's reasonable to question whether they followed the proper procedures in making contributions to Oregon politicians," Fischer says.

Lewkow, of Common Cause Oregon, says his organization has never seen a case like this before in Oregon—and it shows the need for statewide elections reform.

"People should be able to run and win based on the support they have from people that actually live in their districts," Lewkow tells WW.

Correction: This story originally misidentified Daniel Lewkow’s position with Common Cause Oregon. He is the political director, not the director. WW regrets the error.

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