Once a hero, funds for Oregon congressional candidates questioned

WASHINGTON (AP) – Alek Skarlatos, a soldier hero turned Republican candidate for Congress, started a nonprofit shortly after his 2020 defeat in western Oregon, pledging to stand up for veterans ” left dry “by the country” on which they put their lives. the line for.

The group, which Skarlatos seeded with $ 93,000 in campaign funds remaining, has done little since then to advance this cause.

What he did nurture, however, were Skarlatos’ political ambitions, providing $ 65,000, according to records, to his 2022 candidacy for a rematch with longtime Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio in a district stretching from the college town of Corvallis on the Oregon coast. It’s a seat Republicans are aiming for in their quest to reclaim the House.

Campaign finance laws prohibit candidates from self-treating and accepting illicit money from the often opaque and less regulated world of nonprofit political organizations. This includes a ban on candidates donating campaign money to nonprofit groups they control, as well as a broader ban on accepting contributions from those groups, according to legal experts.

But years of lax application of the campaign finance law have fostered an environment in which many candidates are prepared to question long-established limits on what is legal.

“You can’t do that,” said Adav Noti, a former Federal Election Commission lawyer who now works for the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “There is a serious potential for corruption. The law provides for that.

Skarlatos’ campaign did not make him available for an interview, did not address the activities of the association, and did not say whether Skarlatos currently holds a role within the group. Campaign manager Ross Purgason said the transactions were “completely legal”.

“Despite an attempt to smear Alek Skarlatos, who served in Afghanistan, he was never paid a dollar,” Purgason said.

In 2015, Oregon National Guard member Skarlotos gained notoriety when he helped disrupt an attack on a train bound for Paris by a heavily armed man who was an Islamic State follower. . Hailed as a hero, he appeared in “Dancing with the Stars”, visited the White House and obtained dual French nationality. This also led to a role starring himself in Clint Eastwood’s film “3:17 PM to Paris”.

Once he turned to politics, his biography served as the cornerstone of his campaign against DeFazio, the chairman of the House transport committee, who beat Skarlatos by five percentage points in November 2020.

He launched the association the month following its loss, naming it 3:17 PM Trust – a reference to the train attack. He was registered in Virginia, with its campaign treasurer also serving as the group’s treasurer, according to the records.

“Our men and women of service are special people – heroes – who have and will put their lives in danger for our own, and we owe it to them to make sure they are taken care of,” Skarlatos said in a statement. – fundraising email in March 2021.. “This is why I am proud to announce that I am officially launching the 3:17 PM Trust, a new 501 (c) 4 non-profit organization dedicated to advocating and supporting our veterans.”

But the group has had a decidedly low profile. He has an active online fundraising page, but his website is offline. A Facebook page is only “liked” by nine people. His Twitter account has no followers and a single tweet from April, soliciting contributions for an investigation into veterans concerns. A media database search shows no examples of the group mentioned in the reports.

Candidates and federal officials are permitted to donate campaign funds to nonprofit groups. But they are prohibited from making donations to nonprofits they control. Skarlatos’ campaign account donated $ 93,000 in February to its 3:17 pm fund.

The law aims to prevent candidates from circumventing a ban on personal use of campaign funds by funneling money to a separate group that they could then use to collect wages or payments.

Separately, federal campaigns face tough limits on how much and who can give them. This includes a ban on accepting donations from businesses, including nonprofits, which can accept unlimited amounts from anonymous donors.

Although the transfer of $ 65,000 from the nonprofit Skarlatos to his campaign has been listed as a ‘refund’ in the files, it probably does not correspond to the law, said Noti, the former lawyer. of the FEC.

“You can’t, months later, send a different amount from a nonprofit to a campaign and say it was a refund for a larger amount that was transferred much earlier. “, did he declare.

Skarlatos has received campaign payments in the past.

During the 2020 campaign, Skarlatos paid himself more than $ 43,000 in reimbursements for mileage, rent and expenses loosely listed as “contracted campaign staff,” according to records.

In the two months since launching its main GOP 2022 offering – the only time frame still reflected in quarterly filings submitted so far – it has raised an additional $ 2,521 in mileage refunds.

The financial disclosures required by the Congress of Skarlatos show a decrease in the flow of personal income in recent years.

He said he made $ 40,000 from speaking fees, mentions and residue from his film work in 2018. But his most recent file, which was submitted in May 2020, shows he has dropped to 20,000 $, which he bolstered by collecting between $ 5,000 and $ 15,000 in rent from properties he owns. (Congressional disclosures detail dollar values ​​in ranges, not specific numbers.)

It is not known if Skarlatos received a salary from his nonprofit, although his campaign says he did not. This is because the group, which is not listed in an IRS database of tax-exempt groups, has yet to release mandatory financial data, which all nonprofits are required to report. make public. The disclosure will not have to be filed with the IRS until next year.

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