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State says county official not cleared

The Oregon Secretary of State's Office is disputing a claim by a local property rights group that Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal has been cleared of wrongdoing by the Elections Division.

“Because we lack authority over a campaign for a national professional organization, we cannot ‘clear’ Mr. Breidenthal for concerns related to that campaign,” Molly Woon, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Office, said in an email.

Breidenthal remains under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice and the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for activities related to a campaign account set up under the Association of Oregon Counties that Breidenthal used to seek office with the Western Interstate Region. The Ethics Commission suspended its inquiries in March pending the outcome of the Department of Justice's criminal investigation.

David Smith, president of Citizens for Constitutional Fairness, which was involved in supporting the 2004 property-rights Measure 37, released a statement Thursday claiming he’d received an email from the state Elections Division indicating Breidenthal had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

However, a short email to Smith dated April 27 from Jennifer Hertel, a compliance specialist with the Elections Division, stated, "... there is nothing in Oregon Election Law (ORS Chapters 246-260) that would govern the election or financing related to this particular election," referring to Breidenthal's bid for the WIR position.

Smith, who filed a complaint last week with the Elections Division against Jackson County officials, said the county played a "dirty trick" by failing to acknowledge Breidenthal was cleared of wrongdoing from the Elections Division before they filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission.

“In my opinion, this is an attempt to smear someone,” Smith said.

County officials, however, said they did not contact the Elections Division about Breidenthal's separate account for the WIR position. Hertel's email to Smith seemed to support his.

"I have not been able to locate any written advice regarding the collection of monies to support Mr. Breidenthal's election to the (WIR) office," her email said.

Breidenthal has said he’s not connected with the Citizens for Constitutional Fairness but generally supported the group’s complaint filed against county officials. Smith said that years ago, Breidenthal came to his group’s aid in supporting Measure 37. Breidenthal has said he thinks the complaints against him are being orchestrated by county Administrator Danny Jordan.

Woon said the Elections Division does not have authority to regulate a person’s campaign for an office with a national organization such as the Western Interstate Region, a little known subgroup of the National Association of Counties.

“The Elections Division explained that lack of authority to Mr. Smith from Citizens for Constitutional Fairness,” she stated.

Woon said the type of campaign that Breidenthal was engaged in may be subject to other rules enforced by other agencies, including the Ethics Commission and Department of Justice.

“The Elections Division cannot comment on what steps, if any, these other agencies might take regarding this matter,” she said.

Smith's press release claiming Breidenthal was exonerated was distributed to media outlets one day before ballots were to be sent to voters for the primary election. A copy of Smith’s press release has been forwarded to various state agencies involved in the Breidenthal investigation.

“I have shared it with our criminal justice and election team,” said Kristina Edmunson, communications director for Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. “For DOJ’s purposes, the case still remains open.”

Jackson County Auditor Eric Spivak, who filed the complaint against Breidenthal with the Ethics Commission, said it was immediately apparent to him when he started looking into the Breidenthal issue that election laws don’t apply in this situation, and that is why he forwarded the complaint to the Ethics Commission on Oct. 22.

“In October 2015, information became available to me that indicated the Commissioner had solicited donations, received multiple checks ranging from $500 to $2,000 and then spent that money,” Spivak wrote in an email response. “I contacted the Oregon Ethics Commission and asked them to determine if the actions violated any of the specific Oregon Ethics Laws as set forth in ORS Chapter 244.”

He said Smith’s other statements are “factually incorrect” and said he is unaware of any correspondence between the county and the Elections Division over Breidenthal.

A preliminary review by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission found Breidenthal may have violated Oregon law concerning the receipt of gifts valued at more than $50 from parties with interests before the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, the use of an official position for financial gain and possible improper reporting of payments to cover trip expenses.

Jordan, the county administrator, said he has received no information that anyone who reports to him had contacted the Elections Division last October.

“The county was subsequently contacted by the DOJ in reference to a criminal investigation regarding Commissioner Breidenthal,” Jordan stated in an email. “As you likely know, the DOJ has jurisdiction over certain laws. The Elections Division has jurisdiction over certain laws. The Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over other laws.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.