Coal PR firm registers as PAC following election

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Spotlight File PhotoTwo Columbia County residents have filed complaints with the state Elections Division, alleging the Port of St. Helens and a third-party campaign broke election laws.

The Election Division has sent out a series of questions to all involved in the allegations and is pursuing the matter. Elections Division spokesperson Tony Green said any person can file a complaint.

“So just because a complaint has been filed doesn’t mean that the statute was necessarily violated,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The two complaints originated from an annual Port of St. Helens newsletter distributed in the week prior to Election Day and several mailers advocating for Port Commissioner Terry Luttrell’s reelection. The port could face minimal fines $75 to $100 against the employee or public official responsible if the Election Division finds it was not in compliance with election laws.

The newsletter featured the two commissioners up for re-election, Luttrell and Chris Iverson. Luttrell’s challenger Michael Clarke, who lost to Luttrell by 586 votes, believes the port broke election laws by advocating for port commission candidates using public dollars.

Port Deputy Director Paula Miranda said the profiles were intended to highlight the work of the two commissioners, not to advocate for their reelection.

The second complaint came from Rainier resident Darrel Whipple, who filed the complaint after seeing the mailers supporting Luttrell’s reelection sent out from a then-unknown source. He believed the cost of producing the mailers had not been reported. The mailers included a letter of support from St. Helens resident Diane Dillard and a brochure.

Luttrell ran a minimal re-election campaign and said he was not aware of the profile in the port newsletter or of the mailers.

The Spotlight discovered the mailings were being generated by Gard Communications, a Portland PR firm which represents Ambre Energy, an Australian coal company seeking to build a coal export facility at Port of St. Helens property at Port Westward.

Gard Communications provided a statement of independent expenditures to the Spotlight May 16, revealing the firm had contributed $2,547 in-kind donations at that time.

Gard Communications had not, however, set up a political action committee. PACs are required to report contributions and expenditures through the state’s online reporting site ORESTAR. But, on May 24, following the filing of Whipple’s complaint and inquiries from the Elections Division, Gard Communications established a PAC, Yes For Columbia County Jobs.

The original independent campaign represented a loose coalition of unions and businesses interested in Luttrell’s reelection, said Gard spokesperson Liz Fuller.

According to the state, however, if expenditures are being made from more than one source, the group making the expenditures meets the definition of a PAC.

Green said that even though Gard Communications has now filed a PAC, complying with election law requirements following the election, “that wouldn’t mitigate a failure to file the PAC or campaign finance activity within the time frame provided in the law.”

To date, the committee has reported $7,746 in in-kind contributions. Fuller confirmed the committee funds are the same funds connected to the independent Luttrell campaign. More money will likely be trickling in as contributors pay what they had promised, Fuller said.

“There was no intent to break any rules,” she said about the third-party campaign. “We were following direction.”

Gard Communications has enlisted the help of government relations consultation company C&E Systems and Kevin Neely of C&E Systems is listed as committee treasurer.

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