Under current Oregon law, if a candidate converts campaign funds to personal use—to put an addition on his house, buy herself a new car, or just go to Las Vegas for a trip unrelated to a campaign—the penalty is stiff. The candidate must repay the amount spent on personal use, as well as pay a fine of $1,000 for each documented instance of wrongdoing.
But House Bill 2351, which is set for a floor vote today, turns a disincentive to corruption into a virtual invitation to misuse campaign funds.
Here's how: the bill, written at the request of former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, who is now the chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, would scrap the requirement that candidates repay improperly spent funds and instead just require them to pay a penalty of 10 percent of the funds.
Oregon is one of only a handful of states that places no limits on political contributions. Legislative candidates regularly raise more than $500,000 and sometimes much more.
Existing rules on how candidates can spend their campaign funds are already lax.
Sal Peralta of the Independent Party of Oregon did the math for members of the House Rules Committee in his testimony against the bill: if a candidate spends $100,000 for personal use, the candidate would need only to pay a $10,000 fine and would be $90,000 ahead of the game.
Looked at in another way, every dollar a candidate is willing to pay could put 10 dollars in the candidate's pocket for any use at all. That's an extraordinary return on an investment, legal and risk-free.
Dan Meek, a public interest lawyer who testified against the bill and has long worked for campaign finance reform, says HB 2351 is a giant step in the wrong direction and if passed, could prove a temptation for abuse.
"You can use the money for absolutely anything," Meek says. "This bill opens the floodgates."
Despite Peralta and Meek's concerns, the House Rules Committee passed the bill by a 9 to 0 vote.
The House will vote on the bill when it convenes for a floor session today at 11 am.
Updated at 4:00 pm Thursday: HB 2351 has been sent back to the House Rules Committee for amendment.
Updated at 9 am Friday: After the bill was sent back to the House Rules Committee on Thursday, Former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins wrote to the committee to clarify the intent of the bill. Here is what she said about the section that penalizes a candidate 10 percent of the funds converted to improper personal use:
“Our intent was not to change anything regarding requirements or findings that campaigns should be fully reimbursed for funds inappropriately converted to personal use,” Atkins writes. “We simply sought to avoid the situation where a candidate or treasurer was required to use personal funds both to reimburse the campaign and to pay a fine equivalent to the amount of the conversion plus a potential $1000 over and above that amount. And even then, we did not seek to free the candidate or treasurer of that obligation where they had clearly failed to report the expenditure, and could not therefore reasonably claim to have believed the conversion was lawful. The intent was to keep all penalties in place in that situation but to ameliorate the potential for a candidate or treasurer to have to pay 2 times the amount of the conversion when the reporting was done accurately and in the mistaken impression that the particular conversion was appropriate.
There may be a way to more clearly reflect this intent and I hope you will work to make that clarification happen.”