According to Oregon law, public funds cannot be used for a political purpose. Yet, data we’ve compiled at OpenTheBooks.com shows a troubling pattern of Governor Kate Brown mixing taxpayer-funded travel with campaign fundraising events.
This pattern could allegedly violate state law or the governor’s own ethics policy
, which states, "employees are expressly prohibited from using any work time or any state resources to conduct political activities.
Recently at Forbes, we wrote
about the governor using state agency resources and employees to log and redact from disclosure the details around 500 campaign events on her official state calendar since 2015.
Now, our auditors found Brown repeatedly blurred the lines between state agency resources and campaign activities – for years. Here are some examples:
On May 10, 2018, Brown was the commencement speaker at the University of Colorado Boulder. Over a two-day period, the governor’s office, which includes her security detail, racked up $8,277 in expenses
including hotels ($4,148), airline flights ($2,222) and rental car charges ($1,046). The trip was packed with ten campaign events – each logged on Brown’s official state calendar. Brown spent only four hours during the two-day period on Boulder’s campus.
During the week of February 22, 2018, Brown attended the National Governor’s Association conference in Washington, D.C. Landing two days early, Brown scheduled twelve campaign events. In total, Brown spent a full day and a half of the three-day trip campaigning. Taxpayers paid $11,984 in total charges
including airfare ($5,796), the expensive Marriott hotel near the White House ($4,627), car rental ($927), plus food and beverage costs ($600).
Even official events in nearby Seattle were an excuse for Kate Brown to bill off travel expenses to taxpayers and campaign. On February 2, 2018, Brown flew to Seattle to share a panel discussion with Governor Jay Inslee on the topic of off-shore drilling. Once she arrived, Brown did four campaign events in six hours. Oregon taxpayers covered nearly $2,000
in costs including airfare ($1,156) and charges at the self-proclaimed "best wine bar in Seattle" ($79).
Brown is exercising the power of incumbency and engaging in old-school politicking on the public’s dime. Repeatedly using taxpayer money to lower the cost of campaigning and leveraging her office to raise campaign cash seems to be a violation of Oregon law, and the governor’s ethics standards.
For example, over a four-day period between May 2-5, 2017, Brown mixed official state business and 12 campaign events in Washington, D.C., and New York City while racking up $7,854 in office credit card expenditures
. Over the course of the governor’s trip and the following 10 days, more than $38,000 in campaign donations from out of state or undisclosed locations flowed to her campaign account, including $11,125 from the New York and D.C. areas.
In another instance, on March 24, 2017, Brown flew from a meeting at the White House to Seattle, billing off her $689 flight
. Her official state calendar described the purpose of the visit as "Seattle Trip – campaign."
In February 2017, Brown and her husband stayed at the Seven Feathers Resort in Oregon, owned by the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Indian Tribe, for a "government to government" conference. She charged their $212 hotel stay on the state credit card. After a private meeting with tribal elders, she walked away
with a $5,000 campaign donation. Later, when Brown announced she opposed the opening of a competing casino, the tribe donated another $55,000 in campaign funds.
Doing a small bit of official business in between campaign stops doesn’t make trips "official" and eligible for taxpayer subsidies. By not reimbursing taxpayers for the percentage of time spent campaigning during official business trips, the governor may have run afoul of public ethics prohibitions.
It gets worse. Between May 25-31, 2016, Brown took a personal vacation to Palm Springs, California. She paid her own way to Palm Springs, but billed taxpayers
for her flight ($312) from Palm Springs to San Francisco. While on vacation in Palm Springs, Brown also billed taxpayers for the car rental ($293). In San Francisco, Brown mixed campaign events with official events.
In the private sector, this kind of behavior doesn’t pass the smell test. In fact, the Internal Revenue Service gives hard scrutiny to business deductions versus personal expenses. For example, an entrepreneur cannot write-off a personal vacation as a 100 percent business expense just because they do a bit of business at some point on their vacation.
There are no uniform rules for state governors traveling by plane or helicopter. This week, the New York Times exposed
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's alleged overuse of taxpayer-funded planes and helicopters. In contrast, Texas Governor Greg Abbott uses campaign funds to pay for all chartered flights, even when on state business, except for emergency situations.
According to a representative from the governor’s office, Chris Pair, the governor may engage in "incidental non-state activities" while traveling on the taxpayer dime. Citing the Oregon Ethics Commission, Pair said, "It’s appropriate [for the governor] to conduct non-state (personal) business that is incidental to state travel, as long as the state is not bearing an additional expense or the non-state (personal) business." Read Pair’s entire statement here.
As governor, Kate Brown promised a new day in Salem with open and clean governance. She succeeded previous governor John Kitzhaber who resigned after hundreds of thousands in state payments flowed to a nonprofit organization controlled by his live-in girlfriend.
Yet, over the last two-years, our OpenTheBooks.com auditors found Brown soliciting
hundreds of state vendors for $518,000 in campaign cash; paying
for her personal law license with a state credit card; admitting
to using public credit for personal expenses; redacting
4,000 items from her official calendar; and using state agency employees and resources to log and redact 500 campaign events.
By campaigning under the guise of "official" business, Brown is keeping Oregon’s "new day" permanently beyond the horizon.