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Attorney general says tax-exempt group typically can provide venue for in-kind contributions, as long as third party is hosting

This spring's series of campaign events benefiting only one political party at a property owned by a federally registered nonprofit organization has raised statewide concerns about the role of tax-exempt groups in Oregon's primary election.COURTESY PHOTO - A crane aids in installing the new HVAC system on May 4 at the Museum of the Oregon Territory.

Nonprofit organization Clackamas County Historical Society's Tumwater Ballroom has hosted dozens of Republican candidates this year, including a gubernatorial debate involving a reported physical altercation, through its contract with Alimenti Event Services. Not a single Democrat has rented the room during the current campaign cycle.

According to reports submitted to state officials, Alimenti Event Services this spring directly provided a $4,500 in-kind contribution to a Republican candidate for governor, along with a $3,250 contribution to a Republican candidate and Proud Boys leader for House District 40.

Alimenti, which leases its property from the tax-exempt Clackamas County Historical Society, has only ever provided one in-kind donation to a Democratic campaign event, $800 in 2017.

Historical Society officials are in the process of drafting more stringent inclusion and nondiscrimination policies, a CCHS spokesperson said in response to the political events.

"CCHS wants all members of the community to feel welcome in our spaces," said Waldo McGinnis, marketing director of the historical society.

Meanwhile, CCHS is distancing itself from the organizer of the events during this year's primary election season.

"We do not endorse any event, political or nonpolitical, that is held in the Tumwater Ballroom," McGinnis said. "Furthermore we do not support or endorse the actions of Alimenti Event Services LLC, their representatives, or individuals associated with AES."

Alimenti Event Services owner Darrell Hames, who is a registered Republican living in Milwaukie, said that he has not been giving any preferential treatment to candidates. He declined to release his invoices to Pamplin Media Group, but he said rental rates vary depending on the size of the event, and rates also increase on especially popular Saturdays.

"Pretty much every candidate gets the same rate, and I try to be consistent for Democrats and Republicans," Hames said.

Hames said that he has hosted weddings recently for gay couples, along with a recent Muslim wedding.

"We rent the ballroom to anyone who wants to rent the ballroom within reason," he said.

Hames had tentatively scheduled Rep. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone, for an Oregon Senate campaign kickoff on May 12, but Meek decided to hold his event at the Ainsworth House instead after hearing from concerned constituents.

Republican candidates this year have paid Hames $200, with the rest of the daily charge being covered by in-kind contributions. Meek said Hames was proposing to charge $1,400 for the ballroom, but Meek had no way of knowing if it was a fair quote due to the various factors involved such as the date and size of the event.

"Because our supporters were a little concerned about hosting an event there, we decided to relocate it because we didn't want any cloud of controversy surrounding it," Meek said.

Nonprofit as 'independent entity'

Hames has declined requests to denounce his support for a candidate who helps lead a hate group, as identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Public Broadcasting.

"They call me a homophobe and a transphobe, which is ridiculous because I have gay people on staff," he said. "A lot of people have felt that by intimating me and the board of the historical society, they can prevent me from hosting certain types of events."

CCHS board member Cherie Kennemer said she had never seen Hames act in a partisan fashion during his many years of leasing the Tumwater Room from the historical society. Kennemer's husband is Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, who is running against Meek in November and received a $2,000 in-kind contribution from the Oregon Restaurant Political Action Committee for a Tumwater event, but no contribution from Hames directly.

"We had an attorney review our contract to make sure that the historical society is seen as an independent entity and has nothing to do with the operations of the Tumwater Ballroom," she said.

Oregon's attorney general backs up the legal theory used by CCHS's attorney but declined to comment on the case directly. IRS regulations restrict IRS 501(c)(3) organizations from certain types of political activity, but the regulations seem to stop short of preventing such a nonprofit from leasing its property to another group that in turn provides preferential treatment and/or discounted rentals to certain political candidates and causes.

There is no specific restriction in state law, although Oregon Department of Justice officials generally take the position that the directors of an IRS 501(c)(3) organization have an obligation to follow IRS requirements.

"We are generally not able to comment on specific situations, but if an IRS 501(c)(3) organization is renting space to another entity and that entity makes in-kind or other contributions to a political candidate, those contributions would not generally be attributed to the nonprofit," said Kristina Edmunson, spokesperson for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

Tax deductions benefit Proud Boys leader?

By following the money, it's possible to demonstrate that members of the public recently provided tax-deductible funding that indirectly benefited Proud Boys leader Dan Tooze and other Republican candidates in Oregon's May 17 election.

Clackamas County citizens at large recently stepped up to help the historical society continue to host events in the Tumwater Ballroom, which in turn provided in-kind donations to these candidates.

In 2020, the Clackamas County Historical Society's third-floor HVAC system failed, making events impossible in CCHS's Tumwater Ballroom.

Luckily, according to McGinnis, the Clackamas County community pulled through to donate 27% of the total goal of $143,000, or a little over $38,000, which CCHS used as a downpayment to secure a loan to cover the cost of installing the new HVAC system in May 2021.

"We rely heavily on these events to provide the means to meet our mission," the historical society's director said in a fundraising plea.

Federal filings show that CCHS received nearly $64,000 in revenue from rentals in the tax years ending June 30, 2018 and 2019, over 50% of the historical society's income revenue generated for those fiscal years. Due to COVID restrictions and HVAC issues, this revenue fell to $57,599 for 2020 and $23,134 for 2021, but was expected to increase for the current fiscal year.

Jenna Barganski, who was CCHS executive director at the time, said she was "concerned" about a booking for Tooze, who had been banned from renting Oregon City parks facilities after a riot last summer. Barganski said in March she questioned Hames over the scheduled Tooze event, and Hames apparently assured her that no such event would take place.

As Barganski took steps to make sure similar bookings "won't happen again," state campaign filings show that the Tooze event took place on April 15 as scheduled.

"In the days and weeks both preceding and following April 15, CCHS staff were repeatedly informed that the event was canceled," McGinnis said.

Hames acknowledged that the Tooze event took place, but he claimed that the real issue was harassment over holding the event. He also admitted to attempting to cover up Tooze's involvement in the campaign rally by calling it a "Democratic Party Freedom Event" and then editing his Facebook post to call it a "Linda Neace Freedom Event," referring to a former Gladstone councilor and former president of the Oregon Federation of Republican Women.

"We put it down as a Linda Neace event because we were getting so much harassment," Hames said. "The museum director was especially targeted with hateful telephone calls and threats and recently left her position due to the harassment."

Barganski's decision to leave the director's position was made prior to the Tooze controversy, museum officials said.

"Over the past four-plus years I've developed a deep appreciation for the rich history and cultural significance of my surroundings and for the people who work to interpret and promote it. Thank you for all your help and support along the way," she wrote in her resignation letter.

When asked if he had seen Barganski's resignation letter, Hames wrote back, "I do not have a copy of Jenna's resignation letter. Just a conversation from a board member that stated the 'nonprofit work was not fulfilling for her and the threats from the Gladstone Voices group was the last straw.'"

Gladstone Voices is a Facebook group that has been trying to bring attention to activities at the historical society, among other causes in Clackamas County. This group was pleased when Barganski announced that the Tooze event had been canceled.

"While it is true that CCHS staff were verbally harassed via telephone, it was by an individual who was angered over the cancellation of the aforementioned event, and who was not, to our knowledge, affiliated with the group Mr. Hames mentioned," McGinnis said. "Our mission is to preserve and interpret the history of Clackamas County to enrich the lives of current and future generations, a mission we wish to pursue to the benefit of all, including members of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities. We as a staff and board have strived to make our museum inclusive and welcoming and, no matter the circumstances, we will continue to do so."

Happyrock Coffee owner Lisa Halcom, who identifies as a queer Gladstone resident, said her intention in posting Barganski's and Hames' emails to Gladstone Voices was to bring attention to how the community was misled.

"When hate groups are in town it becomes inherently unsafe for marginalized community members," she said. "Some people act like getting along means marginalized people needing to be quiet when people who want to hurt them are around. That is like telling people shut up and get along with their abuser. Being part of a hate group is abusive."

When Halcom posted a negative review of Hames' business online, he wrote her asking to work together to defeat hate, while threatening legal action if she didn't withdraw the review. Halcom declined to remove the review, saying she was aware of her legal rights to identify the Proud Boys as a hate group.

"If people were trying to get along, there wouldn't be any hate groups," she said.

Hames said that he's still considering his legal options for protecting his business interests.

"I have talked with a few attorneys and discussed the options we can do; I have not pursued legal action at this time," he said.

Political events held in the Tumwater Ballroom this year include:

Jan. 27 - Republican gubernatorial debate

Feb. 19 - Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Thielman

March 5 - Clackamas County candidate Dana Hindman-Allen, campaigning with Thielman and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ibrahim Taher.

April 3 — Thielman campaign event

April 15 — Proud Boys leader and Republican state representative candidate Dan Tooze

April 20 - Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, reelection campaign kickoff

April 21 - Parents Rights in Education meeting to announce endorsements of Thielman, U.S. congressional candidate Angela Plowhead, and Republican state representative candidates James Heib and Gabriel Buehler

April 30 - Restore Oregon awards banquet for Republican gubernatorial candidate Kerry McQuisten, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sam Palmer, Republican state representative candidate Drew Layda and National Rifle Association board member Willes Lee.

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