WASHINGTON (AP) — Alek Skarlatos, a heroic soldier turned Republican congressional candidate, started a nonprofit shortly after his defeat in a 2020 race in western Oregon, pledging to advocate for veterans traveling through the country “high and dry.” have been left behind” lives on the line for it.”
The group, which seeded Skarlatos with $93,000 in leftover campaign money, has since done little to further that goal.
What has fueled it, however, is Skarlatos’ political ambitions, netting $65,000, data shows, for his 2022 bid for a rematch with longtime Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio in a district stretching from the college town of Corvallis to the Oregon coast. It is a seat that Republicans are aiming for in their quest to win back the House.
Campaign finance laws prohibit candidates from trading with themselves and illegally accepting money from the often opaque and less regulated world of political nonprofits. That includes a ban on candidates donating campaign money to nonprofit groups they control, as well as a broader ban on accepting contributions from such groups, legal experts say.
But years of lax campaign finance law enforcement have created an environment where many candidates are willing to challenge the long-established boundaries of what is legal.
“You can’t do that,” said Adav Noti, a former Federal Election Commission attorney who now works for the impartial Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “There is a serious potential for corruption. The law takes that into account.”
Skarlatos’ campaign did not make him available for an interview, did not discuss the nonprofit’s activities, and declined to say whether Skarlatos currently plays a role with the group. Campaign manager Ross Purgason said the transactions were “completely legal”.
“Despite an attempt to defame Alek Skarlatos, who served in Afghanistan, he never got a dollar,” Purgason said.
In 2015, Skarlotos, a member of the Oregon National Guard, gained a measure of fame when he helped disrupt an attack on a train bound for Paris by a heavily armed man who was a follower of the Islamic State group. Hailed as a hero, he appeared in “Dancing with the Stars”, visited the White House and was awarded double French citizenship. It also led to a role as himself in the Clint Eastwood movie “15:17 to Paris.”
Once he turned to politics, his biography served as a cornerstone of his campaign against DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who defeated Skarlatos by 5 percentage points in November 2020.
Skarlatos started the nonprofit the month after his loss and named it 15:17 Trust – a reference to the train attack. It was registered in Virginia, while its campaign treasurer also served as the group’s treasurer, records show.
“Our service men and women are special people – heroes – who have risked their lives for ours, and we owe it to them to make sure they are taken care of,” Skarlatos said in an e-mail. mail for fundraising in March 2021 . “Therefore, I am proud to announce that I am officially launching the 15:17 Trust, a new 501(c) 4 non-profit organization dedicated to advocacy and support for our veterans.”
But the group has had a decidedly low profile. It has an active online fundraising page, but the website is offline. A Facebook page is “liked” by only nine people. The Twitter account has zero followers and only one tweet as of April, asking for input to a survey on veterans’ concerns. A search of media databases will not show an instance of the group mentioned in news reports.
Federal candidates and office holders may donate campaign funds to nonprofit organizations. But they are prohibited from donating to non-profit organizations that operate them. Skarlatos’ campaign account donated $93,000 to his 15:17 fund in February.
The law should prevent candidates from circumventing a ban on the personal use of campaign funds by sending money to a separate group that they can then use to collect a salary or payments.
Aside from that, federal campaigns have strict limits on how much and who they can give. That includes a ban on accepting donations from companies, including nonprofits, that can accept unlimited amounts from anonymous donors.
While the $65,000 transfer from Skarlatos’ nonprofit to its campaign was listed as a “refund” on the files, it’s likely not in line with the law, said Noti, the former FEC attorney.
“You can’t send another amount from a nonprofit to a campaign months later and say it was a refund for a larger amount that was transferred much earlier,” he said.
Skarlatos has collected payments from his campaign in the past.
During the 2020 campaign, Skarlatos paid himself more than $43,000 in mileage, rent and expenses that are vaguely listed as “contractor campaign workers,” data shows.
In the two months since the launch of his primary GOP bid for 2022 — the only period so far reflected in quarterly returns filed to date — he has collected an additional $2,521 in mileage reimbursements.
The payments Skarlatos collected during his campaign came at a time when he had an inconsistent flow of personal income, according to his congressional financial disclosures.
He reported making $40,000 in 2018 from speaking fees, notes, and remnants of his film work. But in 2020, that income dropped to $20,000.
His most recent disclosure, filed last week, shows he made at least $78,000 this year. But it did not disclose any income from his nonprofit and did not specify whether he has a role with the group.
Who works for the nonprofit, and who has earned income from it, will become clear next year when the group files publicly available tax returns.