Criticism alleges darkish cash nonprofit supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Bridget Barton violated federal tax law

A dark money group supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Bridget Barton faces the possibility of a federal investigation after a political consultant for a competitor in the governor’s race filed complaints alleging the group might have violated U.S. tax law.

Trey Rosser, campaign manager for Republican candidate Christine Drazan, sent letters Wednesday to the IRS, U.S. Department of Justice, Oregon Department of Justice and Oregon Secretary of State alleging that Oregon Pathfinder might have spent more than the allowed amount for a political nonprofit to directly influence an election.

It’s possible the complaint could be dismissed, because nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors can spend up to 49% of their money on political campaigns — as the Barton-linked nonprofit may have done — and documents listing her as a leader of the group may be outdated.

In the past, Oregon Pathfinder has spent about $500,000 a year, meaning it could direct $200,000 to Barton, as it has done in donations spread across 2021 and 2022, without breaking the 50% rule.

Barton served as president of nonprofit political group Oregon Pathfinder until last summer and is still listed in Oregon corporation records as the 501(c)4 nonprofit’s secretary. Oregon Pathfinder is Barton’s largest single donor and has given her campaign a total of $200,000, according to state campaign finance records. Its nonprofit status allows it to keep its political donors secret.

Barton campaign spokesperson JulieAnna Giannini said the Oregon corporation record listing Barton as secretary of Oregon Pathfinder is outdated and incorrect.

Rosser also alleged that Oregon Pathfinder might have illegally coordinated with Barton’s campaign, something that is restricted in federal elections but not in Oregon races. The only requirement in Oregon is that candidates and donors disclose all their transactions to the state.

Rosser pointed out the large amount of financial support Oregon Pathfinder has directed to Barton in his letters to the law enforcement and regulatory agencies. “We also note that Bridget Barton for Oregon PAC and Oregon Pathfinder currently share an office space,” Rosser wrote.

He filed the complaint soon after Barton released a new ad attacking Drazan for not commenting about about the U.S. Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling against abortion rights and for voting, along with every other House Republican present, for a bipartisan 2021 bill to require free menstrual products in all public school bathrooms. It’s not clear how the attack benefits Barton with days left before the May 17 election deadline, since a recent poll found 2.7% of likely Republican voters supported her. In contrast, 19% of Republican voters supported Drazan, the former House Republican leader, and 14% supported lawyer and corporate consultant Bob Tiernan, putting Drazan and Tiernan in a statistical tie.

In a statement, Barton did not respond to any allegations in the complaint and instead attacked Drazan, saying her campaign manager filed the complaint because Drazan is “unable to defend her woke left voting record.”

Dark money groups are banned from contributing directly to political candidates at the federal level but are allowed to donate directly to candidates in state races. Oregon has no contribution limits. However, federal tax law requires that any 501(c)(4) “not have political intervention as its primary activity,” according to Oregon campaign finance lawyer Dan Meek. “The IRS has interpreted that as 50% of its outlays,” Meek wrote in an email. That includes supporting or opposing candidates for elected office at any level.

The question of whether Oregon Pathfinder exceeded the 50% limit on activities opposing or supporting political candidates would depend on how much it spent on programs in 2021, and will spend in 2022. Its 2021 tax return is not yet publicly available. In 2020, Oregon Pathfinder reported nearly $500,000 in total spending including management services provided by Barton and her longtime business partner Jim Pasero. More than $400,000 went to “help other organizations with support by providing funds for research, outreach, education, marketing and other support in pursuit of public policy issues,” according to the group’s federal tax filing. That included $110,000 to the libertarian organization Freedom Foundation, $163,000 to the Oregon political action committee Action PAC, which tends to support Republican candidates, $20,000 to a group called Common Sense Oregon and $6,000 to Slavic Vote.

In 2018, Oregon Pathfinder was involved in Oregon’s gubernatorial election through its $50,000 donation to Priority Oregon, another dark money group that paid for ads attacking Democratic Gov. Kate Brown as she sought reelection, according to federal tax records.

— Hillary Borrud