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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Campaign donation ‘error’ puts focus on Condon war chest

Before it was changed, a recent filing with the state Public Disclosure Commission by Spokane Mayor David Condon’s re-election campaign showed a small contribution that if true was not only improper, but also a violation of federal tax law.

Chase Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was listed as giving Condon $320 at a recent fundraiser before documents at the PDC were amended to show the donor as Susan Lane, executive director of the Chase Youth Commission, which answers to the foundation.

“The error was made on our end,” said Alisa Oberg, Condon’s campaign treasurer. “Upon putting together thank-you notes we noticed the error and amended the records to reflect the correct source of money.”

Still, the error brought light to a long-running investigation by the PDC into Condon’s 2011 campaign and to his outsized fundraising totals, considering his re-election is a year away and he has no challengers.

Early in his tenure at City Hall, Condon held a gala fundraiser for the Chase Youth Commission, which was cut from its official affiliation with the city under Mayor Mary Verner, though it still receives funding from taxpayers. The gala fundraiser featured a $75-a-plate salmon or chicken dinner, and netted $20,000 for the commission.

Due to its tax-exempt status, the foundation is not allowed to contribute to campaigns. The funds from the recent fundraiser for Condon came from Lane’s personal account, not one belonging to the foundation, Lane said. Lane made available a record of her bank account confirming the donation came from her.

“I’m not in politics so I don’t think about it that way. I don’t think about conflicts of nature,” said Lane, who joined the foundation in 2012. “The donation came from myself and my partner.”

Even though the donation was from Lane’s personal finances, the table was listed at the party as being for “Chase Youth Foundation guests,” which led to the reporting confusion, Oberg said. It’s unknown if any of those guests donated to Condon’s campaign.

The mistaken entry comes a year before Condon faces any challengers, but his campaign already has raised more than $134,000 for his re-election. In fact, he has raised more money than all other candidates running local races in the state next year, including those running for the Seattle city and King County councils.

Condon’s largest donors include Kris Mikkelsen, the retired CEO of Inland Power and Light whom Condon appointed to the Spokane Airport Board two years ago, and Marcus and Sunny Novacheck, a New York couple. Marcus is a broker with Credit Suisse Securities.

Other big donors include James Cowles, chairman of Inland Empire Paper Co., a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review; Jerry Dicker, who owns the Ruby Hotel and the Bing Crosby Theater and is developing the Burgan’s Block near Gonzaga University; and Myrtle Woldson, a Spokane philanthropist who died this year at the age of 104.

So far in his race to stay in the mayor’s office, Condon has spent $71,000. It’s big money, considering he has no challengers.

Potential candidates include members of the City Council, which has at times been at odds with Condon’s administration. Councilman Jon Snyder, who won re-election last year by a large margin, said he hadn’t thought much about running and is focused on more timely matters like campaigning for the park bond and street levy on this November’s ballot, as well as a public transit ballot measure in April.

Councilwoman Amber Waldref said “it’s just not the right time for that type of commitment.”

Council President Ben Stuckart, the only person in City Hall elected citywide other than Condon, announced earlier this year he would seek re-election as the head of the city’s legislative body. Still, last week he wouldn’t rule out a mayoral bid.

When Condon ran in 2011, his campaign came back from a 30-point deficit in the primary. He pounded Mary Verner on her handling of the Otto Zehm matter and water rates. But he got a big financial boon when the state Republican Party delivered $60,000 in last-minute donations.

Some of these contributions raised concerns that his campaign and the GOP were circumventing election laws by exceeding contribution limits and concealing campaign contributions.

A complaint was filed with the PDC by Tanya Riordan, who worked for the liberal activist group Fuse Washington at the time.

In her complaint, she noted that the state GOP received five contributions worth $25,000 from Spokane-area businesses and interests in a three-day span. Two weeks after the money came in, the state GOP gave Condon $25,000.

Two of the five contributors to the state party were companies owned by Condon’s brother, Ted Condon. Four of the five, including one of the companies owned by his brother, had already given the maximum amount allowed to Condon’s campaign.

State law bars parties from promising donors that their contributions will go to certain campaigns, a practice known as “earmarking.”

Condon maintained that no impropriety had occurred. After more than two years of investigating the matter, the PDC agreed with him. The commission said it “found insufficient evidence that David Condon had any understanding (the contributions) would be used to support Mr. Condon’s campaign.” It also said that the state GOP’s financial support to Condon was “preplanned” and the contributions had no bearing on that decision.

Strangest of all, the PDC decision came down this February with little fanfare. The mayor knew about it, but other politicians, including Stuckart, were surprised to hear of the ruling eight months after it was issued.

Snyder said he believes the $25,000 donation was a “violation of the spirit of the law,” and said the complaint’s dismissal shows the weakness of the state’s campaign regulations.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” he said.

Condon has a different opinion.

“I’m sorry to see the PDC be used as a political device these days,” he said. “They need to do their oversight and I’m in full support of what they do, but even in my case it took years because they were so backlogged.”

Nicholas Deshais is filling in for Jim Camden, who is on vacation.
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