A special account set up by former Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal falls into a "legal gray area" and would not be allowed under a new policy established by the Association of Oregon Counties.
"We don't want to touch anything regarding these accounts until the dust settles on the investigations," said Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the AOC.
Breidenthal created a campaign account through the AOC in 2014 to finance his run for an elected office for an obscure land-use policy group known as the Western Interstate Region.
Jackson County Auditor Eric Spivak filed a complaint over the account with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission on Oct. 22, 2015, which triggered an investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice. The DOJ eventually decided not to file criminal charges, but the Ethics Commission investigation continues.
The county’s 37-page complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission asks for an investigation into the possibility of “undue influence” because of contributions received by Breidenthal that were placed in the special account from groups that have contracts or seek decisions from the Board of Commissioners.
Bovett said the AOC's policy basically puts in writing a previous freeze on the accounts after investigations began by various state agencies.
Over the years, the AOC has operated campaign accounts to support the election of county commissioners and judges to other organizations such as the National Association of Counties and the Western Interstate Region.
"However, these accounts operate in a legal gray area, and expenditures from the most recent such account led to the filing of complaints with, and investigations by, the Oregon Department of Justice, the Oregon Secretary of State and the Oregon Ethics Commission," a May 8 letter from Bovett to the AOC Board of Directors stated.
Bovett, who was reached by phone Friday, said the AOC would like the ability to set up special accounts because it still wants to elect Oregon officials to national and regional land-use reform groups such as NACO and WIR.
He said he would recommend AOC's new policy be changed only if there was a statutory change that would provide greater transparency for these accounts. Bovett said he thinks the accounts should be listed on the Oregon Secretary of State's website and have the same requirements as campaign accounts for other elected offices throughout the state.
Breidenthal, who could not be reached for comment Friday, previously has said he has done nothing wrong in regard to the campaign account.
Separate from the WIR account, Breidenthal is also involved in a lawsuit filed by three investors in a marijuana store in Medford who claim he defrauded them of their money used to open the store. Jackson County filed another ethics complaint because Breidenthal allegedly received cash payments for marijuana consulting while he was a county commissioner last year. The alleged receipt of the payments was captured on videotapes.
Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she thinks the AOC policy makes sense to her, but she says that as a commissioner, she tries to make sure she follows the rules.
"I try to be most careful," she said. "There are a lot of rules in place."
Roberts said commissioners can ask the Jackson County Counsel Office for advice, or seek guidance from the Ethics Commission.
Roberts said she recently inquired about going to a conference of women legislators, because she wanted to make sure she could attend without breaking any rules or raising any conflicts. The conference ultimately didn't work out for other reasons, but she did consult with experts to make sure she could go.
"Really, there's lots of advice out there," she said.
Roberts said the county has broken off its relationship with AOC, which cost about $50,000 a year.
She said the issue with the special account was a concern for her in canceling the contract, but the overriding issue was that a representative from AOC didn't adequately represent Jackson County when legislators held hearings over the timber payments issue that benefits rural counties.
"We asked ourselves, 'What are we paying for?' " she said. "There was a lack of representation and advocacy."
— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.