Idaho Democrats asked Tuesday for an investigation into a 1994 land sale that gave U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth’s campaign a needed boost before her first primary victory.
The freshman Republican’s campaign, however, maintains the sale was routine.
The complaint charges Chenoweth’s sale two years ago of her interest in land near Orofino was merely an attempt to skirt federal campaign contribution laws.
It marks the third time in 18 months the state’s Democratic Party officially has requested that the Federal Elections Commission delve into Chenoweth’s finances.
The previous two complaints involved a $40,000 unsecured bank loan and $35,000 in payments from the campaign to Chenoweth’s now-defunct consulting firm.
“Overall, we’re talking about over $135,000 in possibly illegal financial dealings involving Ms. Chenoweth,” said Democratic Party Chair Bill Mauk.
But Chenoweth congressional spokeswoman Kris Bershers - who spoke only after first explaining that 30 percent of her salary is now being paid by the campaign - said Tuesday’s complaint “is no more substantive than the previous ones (Mauk) has made.
“They keep picking at old things,” and are trying to avoid the “real issues,” she said.
Bershers acknowledged that Chenoweth has had to amend federal financial reports 15 times since taking office.
The bank loan, which Chenoweth misrepresented for seven months as a personal loan to her campaign, eventually was secured with a second mortgage on her Boise home.
Bershers Tuesday was unable to explain why payments to Chenoweth’s consulting firm included rent checks that were three times higher than usual.
“Helen has admitted that she has had a lot of clerical errors,” she said. “She’s corrected that stuff.”
The new complaint involves land Chenoweth co-owned with ex-husband Nick Chenoweth. She said she sold a quarter of it - half of her interest - to Idaho Falls millionaire Allen Ball in April 1994 for $60,000.
That price is nearly six times the land’s 1994 assessed value. All of the money was used for a last-minute advertising blitz before the May 1994 primary election.
Chenoweth defeated two Republican contenders and went on to oust two-term Democrat Larry LaRocco in the general election.
The issue of the land sale re-surfaced recently after it was revealed there still is no record of it in the Clearwater County Courthouse. Despite requests in 1994 and again Tuesday, Chenoweth has not produced any documents - a contract, or a photocopy of the deed - that prove the sale took place.
Chenoweth’s ex-husband, meanwhile, insists the deal took place and that Ball has paperwork to prove it.
Democrats suggest Chenoweth never intended to sell the property and instead sought to have a single donor pump more than the $1,000 limit into her near-broke campaign. Ball admitted in 1994 that he was first approached by a Chenoweth campaign worker.
But Tuesday, Bershers said there was nothing unusual about the sale and said Idaho law does not require property transfers be recorded.
“This is a situation where Helen sold it to an individual and it was his responsibility to record it” - if he wanted, she said. “He didn’t have to do it.”
Attempts to reach Ball were unsuccessful Tuesday. Receptionists at his Idaho Falls cosmetics company said he was in Alaska until the end of the month.
Nick Chenoweth, reached Tuesday at his law office in Orofino, said that once Ball returned, he would provide proof of the transaction.
“It’s a private business matter,” Nick Chenoweth said. Besides, “he (Ball) has the deed.”
The two parcels in question total 53 acres and were assessed in 1994 at $42,000, according to Clearwater County records. Ball paid $18,000 more than that for a one-quarter interest - a little more than 13 acres.
Nick Chenoweth argued the property was worth that because the entire piece had been split into 40-some building lots. In 1994, a private appraiser backed that claim.
“It’s prime development land.”
Nick Chenoweth also said he planned to pay the overdue property taxes - unpaid since 1994 - because without a recorded deed, he was legally responsible for the entire tax bill of $1,319.90 plus interest. Helen Chenoweth’s name does not appear in courthouse records.
“It makes sense that I’m the one who goes over there to pay it,” said Nick Chenoweth, whose office is on the same street as the courthouse. “I’ll expect Allen and Helen to pay me for their share.”
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