Once a hero, Oregon congressional candidate funds questioned

FILE - In this May 15, 2019, file photo Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., speaks during a House Transportation Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Oregon congressional candidate and hero soldier Alek Skarlatos formed a nonprofit to advocate for veterans after he lost his 2020 race. The group has done little to advance that cause since then. But it has helped get the Republican's bid for a 2022 rematch with DeFazio off the ground. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh,File) (Susan Walsh, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Alek Skarlatos, a hero soldier-turned-Republican congressional candidate, started a nonprofit shortly after his 2020 defeat in a western Oregon race, pledging to advocate for veterans “left high and dry” by the country "they put their lives on the line for."

The group, which Skarlatos seeded with $93,000 in leftover campaign funds, has done little since then to advance that cause.

What it has nurtured, though, are Skarlatos' political ambitions, providing $65,000, records show, to 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 shore. It's a seat that Republicans are targeting in their quest to win back the House.

Campaign finance laws prohibit candidates from self-dealing and from accepting illicit money from often opaque and less regulated world of political nonprofits. That includes a prohibition on candidates donating campaign cash 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 fostered an environment where many candidates are willing to challenge the long-established boundaries of what's legal.

"You can’t do that,” said Adav Noti, a former lawyer for the Federal Election Commission who now works for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. "There’s serious corruption potential. The law contemplates that.”

Skarlatos' campaign did not make him available for an interview, did not address the activities of the nonprofit and would not say whether Skarlatos currently holds a role with the group. Campaign manager Ross Purgason said the transactions were “completely legal."

“Despite an attempt to smear Alek Skarlatos, who served in Afghanistan, he was never paid a dollar," said Purgason.

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 on “Dancing with the Stars,” visited the White House and was granted dual French citizenship. It also led to a role starring 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 went on to beat Skarlatos by 5 percentage points in November 2020.

Skarlatos started the nonprofit the month after his loss, naming it 15:17 Trust — a reference to the train attack. It was registered in Virginia, with his campaign treasurer also serving as the group's treasurer, records show.

“Our service men and women are special people — heroes — who have and will put their lives on the line for ours, and we owe it to them to make sure they’re taken care of,” Skarlatos said in a March 2021 fundraising email. “This is why I am proud to announce that I am officially launching the 15:17 Trust, a new 501(c) 4 non-profit organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of and supporting our veterans.”

But the group has had a decidedly low profile. It has an active online fundraising page, but its website is offline. A Facebook page is "liked" by only nine people. Its Twitter account has zero followers and only one tweet from April, soliciting input for a survey on veterans' concerns. A search of media databases shows no instance of the group being mentioned in news stories.

Federal candidates and officeholders are allowed to donate campaign funds to nonprofit groups. But they are prohibited from donating to nonprofits that they operate. Skarlatos' campaign account gave $93,000 in February to his 15:17 Fund.

The law is intended to prevent candidates from sidestepping a prohibition on the personal use of campaign funds by routing money to a separate group that they could then use to collect a salary or payments.

Separately, federal campaigns face tight limits on how much and who can give to them. That includes a ban on accepting donations from corporations, including nonprofits, which can accept unlimited sums from anonymous donors.

Though the transfer of $65,000 from Skarlatos' nonprofit to his campaign was listed as a “refund" in filings, that likely doesn't square with the law, said Noti, the former FEC attorney.

“You can’t, months later, send a different amount from a nonprofit company to a campaign 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 reimbursements, rent and expenses vaguely listed as “contractor campaign staff,” records show.

In the two months after launching his 2022 GOP primary bid — the only period of time reflected yet in quarterly filings submitted so far — he has collected another $2,521 in mileage reimbursements.

The payments Skarlatos' collected from his campaign were made at a time when he had an inconsistent stream of personal income, according to his congressional financial disclosures.

He reported making $40,000 from speaking fees, endorsements and residuals from his movie work in 2018. But in 2020 that income dropped to $20,000.

His most recent disclosure, which was filed this past week, shows he has earned at least $78,000 this year. But it did not reveal any income from his nonprofit and did not indicate whether he holds a role with the group.

Who works for the nonprofit, as well as who has earned income from it, will become clearer next year when the group files publicly available tax paperwork.