Today’s wheels of civic progress turn so slowly at all levels of government. Often it feels like we’re stuck, or moving backwards. As Oregonians scrutinize problems in our nation’s capital, we should work harder to improve things at home.
Money lies at the root of our political quagmire. With no cap on campaign donations, Oregon is one of the most regressive places in America to engage in the democratic process. To worsen matters, state election laws now on the books are ignored or unenforced. Improvements move at a glacial pace, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge.
We were reminded of this status quo in a case involving our former state Rep. Deborah Boone, D–Cannon Beach. After leaving her seat in the Oregon House, the seven-term legislator was quoted on the record regarding behavior that, if accurately reported, looks like a crime.
An article about Boone in The Oregonian presents details about pass-through political donations — channeling money to campaigns on behalf of other donors, shielding their names from financial disclosure forms. Such donations are a felony in Oregon punishable by up to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine.
Quotes attributed to Boone displayed candor on this matter. If the article is accurate, she clearly believed she did not do anything out of the ordinary. In fact, her words suggest such financial dealings are common practice, thus offering the public an unfiltered look at Oregon’s political norm.
“It’s so prevalent,” she is quoted as saying. “I would think if it was illegal, they’d cite you on it.”
These words are certainly in keeping with the state’s handling of Boone’s case. After months of doing nothing, officials finally responded when area citizens wrote a formal letter to Oregon Secretary of State Beverly Clarno.
Of particular concern was a donation to Boone from John Helm, husband to Sen. Betsy Johnson, D–Scappoose, who co-chairs the powerful Joint Committee on Ways and Means. The Oregonian quotes Boone as saying that Helm gave her the money with instructions to pass it along to Tim Josi, a long-serving Tillamook County commissioner who was campaigning to fill her seat in the Legislature.
Secretary Clarno’s staff sent letters of inquiry to Boone, Helm and Josi. Boone’s response appears to reverse earlier statements printed in The Oregonian. Rather than seek to explain the contradiction, officials simply stopped the investigation in August.
After The Oregonian published another article about the case in September, Clarno announced her intention to improve law enforcement. But not for Boone, Helm and Josi. Why should parties in a case that prompted more public scrutiny be exempted from state law?
Clarno’s move signals little more than window dressing, at best, if she refuses to complete her investigation. At worst it leaves us with the appearance of duplicity, or the sense that state officials may have carefully worded an inquiry so as to allow flexible interpretation, then dropped the case without addressing the obvious need for clarification. In other words, it smacks of special treatment for political insiders.
This dramatic shortfall of duty also undermines trust in reporting about elections. In a recent editorial published by The Oregonian, their editorial board mentions an assertion by Boone that the state’s newspaper of record got the story wrong. Yet to date no one has requested a correction.
A responsible course of action need not be punitive in this case, even if pass-through donations occurred. I see no reason for Boone or anyone involved to be punished if what they did was engage in a crime that has been ignored up to this point.
We don’t need to make an example of someone. We need civic leaders to be examples by demonstrating a renewed commitment to truth-telling and transparency.
I’d like to view Boone’s reported candor as a frank acknowledgement of systemic failures that require our timely attention. Give her the chance to clear up any confusion over conflicting public statements. Expound on the pervasiveness of the problem, if appropriate.
Use this as an opportunity to expedite campaign finance reform and help remove a moneyed stain from politics as a whole.
Oregon can model leadership for America by moving from behind up to the front of the class. We’ll do this if, and only if, we strengthen public confidence in fair elections.