Taped phone call: Party official linked donations, nominations

PORTLAND — In a recorded phone call, an official of the Independent Party of Oregon says candidates need to contribute money to the party if they want to participate in the party's nominating process.

In the call, Sal Peralta, the Independent Party secretary, tells Ben Unger, a Senate Democratic campaign operative, that candidates "should kick in" to help defray the cost of an election among the party's membership.

Unger, whose call was being taped as part of a state investigation of the Independents, asks, "if you want to participate, you have to pay?"

"Yeah," replies Peralta.

On Thursday, Peralta said he "misspoke" in the call and later made it clear to candidates that they didn't need to contribute to get the party's nomination. He said no one was trying to profit personally from the growing demand by many of Oregon's most prominent politicians for the official backing of the Independent Party.

The phone call and other material from an investigation by the state attorney general's office were released Thursday following a public records request from The Oregonian and other news organizations.

Under state law, it is a felony to offer a political nomination in exchange for money.

Last month, Attorney General John Kroger decided not to prosecute. On Thursday, his spokesman, Tony Green, defended that decision.

"Unless the conduct has clearly crossed the line to criminal," Green said, "you have to err on the side of not squelching political activity."

Secretary of State Kate Brown, who was aware of the investigation by the attorney general, issued a "cease-and-desist" letter last month ordering the party not to link nominations to donations. Her spokesman, Don Hamilton, said Thursday that Brown took an "appropriate and strong response under the authority she has."

Peralta sent Unger what he called a "clarifying e-mail" the morning after the call, making it clear that a donation wasn't necessary to receive a nomination. The e-mail, included in the material from the attorney general's office, says that donations, or the lack thereof, "will have no role" in determining a candidate's eligibility for a nomination.

The Independent Party, which has rapidly grown since it was founded in early 2007, and now has about 55,000 members, has found itself with increased influence because of a new state law allowing "fusion voting."

Candidates are now allowed to list on the ballot the cross-nomination or endorsement of up to two other parties besides their own. The Independent label is regarded as a particularly valuable way to appeal to voters who are alienated from the Democratic and Republican parties. On Thursday, the Independent Party released a list of 77 legislative candidates, including House Speaker Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, and 35 other Democratic and Republican incumbents, seeking its endorsement.

In a separate interview with an investigator from the attorney general's office, Unger said Democrat Dan Rayfield would give state Sen. Frank Morse, R-Corvallis, a tough race this fall, particularly if Rayfield also had the Independent nomination, which Unger said was worth an "automatic two to three points."

But if Morse wins the Independent nomination, Unger said, "we're screwed."

The taped conversation between Unger and Peralta provides an intimate look at backroom politics in Oregon.

Peralta and Unger discuss how the Independent Party suggested that Oregon Senate candidates donate $750 if they were seeking a contested nomination. "That's the minimum ask," says Peralta, who later adds that if candidates want the party to hold a contest for the nomination in their district, "then I think they should kick in."

Later, Unger asks what would happen if Rayfield doesn't want to donate.

"Well, he doesn't have to," Peralta replies.

"But then does he not get to participate?" Unger asks.

"That's right," Peralta says.

"OK," Unger says. "So I just have to tell him, Look, if you want to participate, you have to pay.'"

"Yeah," Peralta says.

Unger declined comment Thursday when contacted by The Oregonian.

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who also had a taped phone conversation with Peralta at the request of state investigators, said that he didn't think the party's fundraising tactics were appropriate. But he said he never thought, "I was being shook down by an individual or organization for profit."

Peralta said he was struggling as a volunteer to raise money so that the party could continue an Internet-based primary open to its entire membership. "I was just exhausted and wiped out and felt beaten up" when he talked to Prozanski and Unger, he said.

Portland lawyer Dan Meek, who founded the party and remains one of the three key leaders, along with Peralta and Chairwoman Linda Williams, said, "Obviously we did not authorize Sal to make a contribution a requirement" for seeking the party's nomination.

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