Around lunchtime Feb. 10, former Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) abruptly dropped out of the Democratic primary for secretary of state.
The move came as a shock to the political establishment. Williamson was widely considered the front-runner for the open seat. She had initially considered, and polled for, a run for attorney general. Although she chose the secretary of state's race, many observers thought her long-term ambition was the governor's office.
Her decision to drop out of the statewide race, for which she has already raised nearly $220,000, came in the form of a Facebook post with a cryptic explanation.
"Sadly, a story currently being pushed in the media is designed to question my use of campaign funds and unfairly attack my integrity," she posted to her campaign's Facebook page, calling it "a baseless story that questions my integrity, that of my family, and the legal use of campaign funds. I won't allow my family to be put through this."
Willamette Week confirmed the story she referred to was an investigation WW had been working on for four weeks and planned to publish Wednesday. Because of her announcement, we are publishing it now:
Over the past eight years, former Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) has spent campaign funds in a variety of ways that were highly unusual.
That would matter if it were any politician. But in this case, Williamson was the leading Democratic contender in the secretary of state's race, until her decision to quit earlier today. The secretary of state is Oregon's chief elections official who oversees campaign finance laws.
A four-week examination of Williamson's expenditures, covering four elections over the past eight years, paints a picture of a politician who does not appear to have broken any laws, but has instead liberally interpreted the limits of campaign spending in ways rarely seen in Oregon.
Williamson's expenditures were unusual in at least three ways: the breadth and frequency of her travel; the use of campaign funds to rent Portland office space from her husband's law firm and a bedroom in a Salem apartment from a niece; and her frequent use of campaign funds for meals and alcohol during legislative sessions when lawmakers receive a per diem allowance of $151.
Her critics, who include fellow Democratic politicians who expressed surprise at Williamson's spending but declined to speak on the record, suggest her campaign spending, including on international trips, raises questions about her ability to win the trust of voters for a job that requires nonpartisan fairness.
"Oregon's laws on use of campaign funds are extremely lax," says Dan Meek, a lawyer and campaign finance reform advocate. "Campaign funds can be used for almost anything, except for direct deposit into the candidate's personal bank account."
Records show that over the past eight years, Williamson traveled the world, visiting Germany, China, Hong Kong, Ireland, and Vancouver, B.C., among other countries, a significant chunk of it on her campaign's dime. She also traveled extensively in the U.S. with campaign funds, visiting Hawaii, Nashville, Denver, Atlanta, Boston and numerous other cities.
In all, Williamson spent about $30,000 on airfare over the past eight years. That's five times what her counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D-Portland), spent on airfare during the same period.
Williamson also spent about $19,000 on hotels and resorts since taking office, records show, three times what Burdick spent on hotels and resorts during the same period.
The number of the trips and the amount Williamson spent on travel "is definitely unusual for a Portland legislator," says Seth Woolley, candidate for the Portland City Council and an advocate of campaign finance reform.
Asked on Jan. 28 for an explanation of her international travel, Williamson said, in an interview at WW's office, that while she paid for those trips with campaign funds, she received reimbursements for all those trips from various organizations on whose boards she served.
Then, on Feb. 9, Williamson reached out via email to correct her initial statement and said expenditures for only a portion of the trips were reimbursed to her campaign account.
"I realize I misspoke when we met earlier this month—my comments were too general," Williamson wrote in her email to WW. "Over the years, I've used my PAC to cover travel expenses, some of which were later reimbursed."
Williamson subsequently declined to answer specific questions about the purpose of various international trips, whom she traveled with and how much of the expenditures were later reimbursed. (Her PAC records do show some reimbursements for travel, but it is not clear which travel expenditures were reimbursed or why she went where she did.)
Williamson would say only that all of the travel "was related to legislative business and campaign responsibilities."
But it's not just international travel paid for by her campaign that raises questions.
• From December 2013 to August 2016, campaign records show, she paid her husband Paul Loving's law firm, Consul Group, which he founded as a solo practice in 2005, a total of $7,200 in rent for office space, including an initial payment of $800 and $200 a month thereafter. Williamson says she used the office for both campaign and legislative purposes.
Williamson says she chose to pay rent to her husband because it was cheaper than other alternatives in her House district. The payments stopped in August 2016, and her campaign has not paid rent for an office since then.
• Since August 2015, she also paid monthly rent ($357, most recently) for a bedroom in her niece's apartment in Salem out of PAC funds, both during and between legislative sessions.
"I have all of my stuff, all of my campaign stuff, is in that room, in that apartment," she says. (Lawmakers often rent apartments in Salem, but some use their legislative per diem money to cover rent during sessions. As House majority leader, Williamson was responsible for House Democratic campaigns statewide.)
• Records also show Williamson frequently used campaign funds for food and drinks at events during session while she receiving legislative per diem payments that could be used for food and drink.
From Jan. 1 to June 30, 2019, for instance, a period that corresponds roughly with last year's legislative session, Williamson spent more than $10,000 of campaign funds on food, coffee and other drinks in Salem alone. In other words, Williamson was using campaign donations for food and housing, which may have allowed her to pocket the money from the taxpayer-funded daily allowance meant to cover those same expenses.
Williamson declined to answer follow-up questions about why the payments weren't covered by her per diem allowance, nor would she answer other questions about why her Salem expenditures were so high and were paid by her PAC.
In an interview with WW on Jan. 29, Williamson made clear her personal budget is stretched. She owns a home in Northwest Portland valued at more than $1.4 million, but she and her husband, she acknowledges, are still working to pay off a $19,000 personal income tax bill for which the Oregon Department of Revenue filed a lien in 2016.
The lien was soon removed, but a payment plan remains, Williamson acknowledges.
"In my life, I have made mistakes," Williamson tells WW. "I am human. What I know is that I will be transparent and fix my mistakes when I know about them."
The couple has also struggled to support family members and deal with extensive medical bills for a chronic hip problem that troubles Williamson.
"We were lucky financially and professionally," she says. "Any one of those things could have devastated a family. We will be completely out of it at the end of this year as far as finalizing our debt."
On Feb. 10, WW learned that public employee unions, already disappointed by Williamson's 2019 vote to trim retirement benefits, would not support her in the May primary because of concerns about this story.
Within hours, Williamson abruptly dropped out of the race for secretary of state. In her announcement on Facebook, she defended her integrity.
"Let me be clear," she wrote, "I have always followed Oregon campaign finance laws and fully reported all expenditures for travel and other expenses while fulfilling my responsibilities as House Democratic Majority Leader and fact-finding as a state legislator. In fact, I often used campaign dollars in place of taxpayer dollars."
The nonprofit Journalism Fund for Willamette Week provided support for this story.