Rob Cornilles hasnât seen his campaign message that heâs a âjob creatorâ go quite like heâd hoped.
Cornilles is the Republican nominee in the Jan. 31 special election to replace former U.S. Rep. David Wu. He's running by talking up his credentials on the No. 1 issue voters want to hear about: creating Oregon jobs.
His proof has been the success of his sports marketing company, Game Face, which his campaign claims is "one of the most influential consulting and executive training firms in the sports industry—worldwide."
But news reports have since shrunk those claims down to size, citing problems with regulators, tax liens and the fact his company is a ghost of its former self.
What has received less attention is one of Cornilles' chief campaign pitches: that tax breaks hurt small businesses and their ability to create jobs.
"Who gets stuck paying a full tax bill?" Cornilles asks on his campaign website. "People like you and me, and small and medium-sized companies like the ones in Oregon that don't have tens of millions of dollars to stuff the tax code with special-interest perks."
But earlier this year, Cornilles led a team that proposed revamping Portland's Veterans Memorial Coliseum—a plan that counted on millions of tax breaks for its investors.
Cornilles and his partners proposed an $80 million remodel of Memorial Coliseum that relied on big tax breaks for its investors.
He and his partners, financier Kirk Iverson and producer Tim Lawrence, sought to turn the Coliseum into what they called an "Oregon Media Free Enterprise Zone."
Dubbed the Veterans Media Center, the former Coliseum site would become a giant multimedia facility, including sound stages, production studios and three theaters.
"This concept is quintessentially Portland," Cornilles says on the proposal's website. "Veterans Media Center will fuse Oregon's creativity and natural resources with an industry searching for a more sustainable place to produce innovative content. We'll create family wage jobs while expanding a market, and our region will experience such an economic boon that we'll find ourselves front and center on the worldwide media stage."
The proposal counted on substantial tax breaks for investors, who "will receive a 100% State of Oregon (transferable) tax write-off in addition to federal matching incentives co-developed by the City,â according to a May business plan.
Backers said at the time the proposal could be eligible for as much as $30 million in tax credits.
Cornilles and his partners held a flurry of meetings with elected officials and business leaders this year to pitch the idea.
When WW asked Cornilles about the potential tax breaks, however, he said he didn't recall they were part of his partnership's proposal. (News of the potential for tax credits for the project, however, appeared in news reports; see "Lights! Camera! Coliseum!" WW, May 18, 2011.)
When shown a copy of his group's plan, he said one of his partners wrote it.
"I'm not as familiar with it as you might think," Cornilles says. "It was not a formal proposal." He said the plan was simply "a concept."
The plan so far has had little traction, and Cornilles continues to use his company, Game Face, to bolster his campaign claims that he's a job creator.
"Oregon needs job creators and career builders, something Rob has been doing successfully for nearly 20 years," his campaign says. "Voters of the First Congressional District have an alternative. In this Special Election, we can choose between a career politician or a career builder."
His opponent, state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton), has no record of job creation. She's worked as a government lawyer for three years, and in private practice for another three before giving up her practice to raise a family.
That's given Cornilles an open field to talk about his experience as a businessman and to promote his plans to create jobs.
Cornilles founded Game Face Inc., in Tualatin in 1995. Since then, the company has worked in three areas of the sports business. He trained people to become sports franchise employees, recruited front-office personnel for sports teams, and advised and trained teams how to sell more tickets.
"We have an unusual and unprecedented ability to actually know what teams want and need," Cornilles tells WW.
Cornilles is a well-known figure in many sports teams' front offices. He says Game Face has served 400 professional and college teams.
Mike Golub, chief operating officer of Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers, says he's known Cornilles for 15 years, and that Game Face did good work for the Timbers and Portland Trail Blazers, the team Golub used to work for.
"They've done a really good job, and it's always been a pleasure to work with them," Golub says.
But Cornilles has also made claims that he is one of the nation's top sports marketing figures. "Rob has been invited into more front offices than any person in sports," Cornilles says on his LinkedIn page.
Some sports business veterans, however, are puzzled by the claim.
"I don't know what that means," says Steve Patterson, former Blazers president and now chief operating officer for Arizona State University's athletic department.
"I know he's trained folks who have been placed at various teams," says Patterson, who has also worked for the NFL's Houston Texans and the NBA's Houston Rockets. "But I don't even know how you evaluate that claim."
Cornilles says he was on the road for 15 years, traveling to sports franchises, including from 1997-99 for MLS, which had him visit each team three times a year.
Pressed by WW to substantiate his claim that heâs been in more front offices than âany person in sports,â Cornilles says he canât.
"Admittedly, you'd have to take my word for it," he says.
Cornilles' campaign also claims Game Face has "advised and trained more than 30,000 executives in the pro and collegiate ranks."
"That's a massive number," says Syracuse University sports marketing Prof. Rick Burton, who co-authored an academic paper with Cornilles 15 years ago. "There's just no way to know whether it's accurate or not."
The claim that Cornilles has trained 30,000 executives has also jumped—last year he said on his LinkedIn page that the number was 25,000.
"The increase isn't because I did 5,000 in the past year," Cornilles says. "It's because I did the numbers more carefully."
The Oregonian reported Tuesday about the decline of Cornilles' company—once employing as many as 20 people, it now has only four.
Many of Cornilles' other business problems have also been reported. In October, WW reported that Game Face failed to make federal payroll tax payments for three quarters in a row in 2007, resulting in an $83,000 federal tax lien.
Cornilles blames a bookkeeper for failing to make the tax payments; his company had to set up a payment plan with the Internal Revenue Service and got the lien cleared three months later.
In 2003, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries settled claims against Game Face involving a sports marketing training program.
The allegations, first reported by the Forest Grove News-Times in 2010, were brought by trainees who claimed they were selling tickets for Game Face without being paid to do so. Cornilles' company paid $9,000 to settle the claim.
Cornilles tells WW his business has declined in recent years. He says the recession has hit the sports business, and fewer teams are hiring his firm. He said his campaigning for Congress—he ran against Wu in 2010 but lost—has taken a toll.
Cornilles says Game Face has been highly dependent on his presence and that he's taken a pay cut. "I sacrificed income for the benefit of my employees," he says.
In 2010, records show Cornilles allowed the federal trademark on the name "Game Face" to lapse, which meant he no longer owned the right to the brand he'd spent 15 years building.
Congressional candidate disclosure forms show that through the first eight months of 2011, Game Face paid Cornilles a total of just $48,750. He made $42,000 last year, and $85,750 in 2009.
Records show most of Cornilles' household income comes from business investments in a family trust controlled by his wife's family. His wife, Allison, controls 17 percent of the trust, records show.
(The trust includes a Northeast Portland retirement center built with nearly $9 million in public loans. The center recently had its property tax abatement extended, a break that city officials estimate is worth $2 million.)
After WW asked Cornilles' campaign in October why Game Face's business registration showed the company to be inactive, Cornilles set about fixing it.
That process got delayed because Cornilles tried to re-register Game Face using a post-office box for the company's address.
But Oregon law requires a company to have a physical location, so Cornilles listed 19125 SW 125th Court, Tualatin, as Game Face's address.
The only catch—Game Face vacated its 6,800-square-foot office at that location in 2008 to save money.
Asked why his business registration lists an empty office, Cornilles initially denied that was the case. When showed the records, he called it "a mistake."
âI can see how that would be confusing to people,â he says. âThereâs nothing fishy about it.â