By TOM JAMES , Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Anonymous campaign donations are banned in Oregon, but nearly half the money raised by a leading Republican gubernatorial candidate cannot be directly traced because it comes from two out-of-state corporations.
The two corporations have donated $125,000 of the $288,000 raised so far by candidate Greg Wooldridge, who lists "the sunshine of accountability" as part of his campaign platform.
What the functions of the corporations are - and who is behind them - was a mystery only partly cleared up by the campaign after the donations were made. One is tied to a California real estate executive, but the other, listed as a Nevada firm, had its business license yanked, an Associated Press review found.
The cloaking of campaign funds reveals a loophole in Oregon law: Anonymous donations from individuals are illegal, but donations from anonymously-run corporations are not. A company's name alone satisfies Oregon laws requiring candidates to list sources of donations, even if company documents don't list the actual owners.
The result is that people who want to donate anonymously to political campaigns can get around the ban on anonymous individual donations simply by using an anonymously-held corporation, said Jay Steinmetz, a political science professor at the University of Oregon.
"The corporation becomes a kind of black box in that way - it's hard to know what goes in or what comes out," said Steinmetz. "The spirit of the law is what's being violated here."
Asked about the donations last week, Wooldridge said the larger of the two donations — $100,000 — was from a friend who had routed it through a corporation to protect their identity.
The campaign listed the source as Daybreak Investments, a business originally registered anonymously in Delaware, then re-registered in California.
A spokesman for Wooldridge's campaign later said the donation came from John Ryan, a California real estate executive. On California documents, Ryan is listed as the manager of a company which itself is listed as a partner of Daybreak, but not as the owner of either.
Asked about the donation, Ryan confirmed he had originally wanted to remain anonymous, but added that logistical considerations also drove him to donate through the company.
"Most of my money is in Daybreak," Ryan said. "It's just easier to write a check out of that, than it is to transfer it and put it under my name."
Ryan said he has supported other candidates in similar fashion, mostly in California, and that he donated to Wooldridge out of friendship and a shared affinity for veterans' issues. Woolridge is a former Navy pilot.
Heading into the May 15 Oregon primary, Woodridge is competing for his party's gubernatorial nomination against two others considered front-runners, Knute Buehler, a state legislator, and businessman Sam Carpenter.
The Wooldridge campaign's second-largest donation, $25,000, originates from a Nevada-registered firm called Wingate Enterprises. Donation records include a note that the firm does business under the name Pacific Bottling services.
But neither company appears to exist in that state as a legally functioning business.
Wingate's Nevada business license is listed as permanently revoked, the AP found, and no business named Pacific Bottling Services is registered in Nevada.
The owner of an Oregon business named Pacific Bottling Services said they rent equipment from Wingate, but are a separate company.
"Pacific Bottling Services and myself are not connected to the political activities of Wingate Enterprises," wrote Noel Arce, the Oregon company's owner, in an email Thursday.
In an email Thursday, Wooldridge campaign spokesman Jonathan Lockwood wrote the donation came from Wingate's CEO, but wouldn't say who that was, explain why the two firms were listed together, or comment on the fact that neither appeared to be a functioning business in Nevada.
Multiple requests for further comment were not returned by Wooldridge or Lockwood.
Listing a business that isn't legally registered isn't a violation of campaign rules so long as it's done in good faith, said Deb Royal, chief of staff for Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson.
"It's not a campaign's responsibility to research everyone that gives you a contribution," Royal said.
Part of the challenge of identifying who's behind corporations comes from state licensing laws, which often allow corporations to be set up without listing who their actual owners or beneficiaries are.
Under Nevada law, corporations are allowed to list "nominee officers," who are not actually involved in running the business but allow the company to use their name for a fee. Before its license was revoked, Wingate Enterprises appeared to have taken advantage of that: According to a Las-Vegas Sun report, the same person named as president in its early corporate documents was also named as an officer of nearly 4,000 other companies in the state.