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Auto Dealers Steering Contributions To Candidate

John Ryan
10/29/2010

State officials are considering whether to investigate allegations of illegal campaign contributions made by a group of auto dealers to state Representative Dan Kristiansen. The Republican from Snohomish represents a mostly rural district stretching to the Canada border. State law caps any company's contributions at $1,600 per election. Campaign filings show Kristiansen receiving four times that amount from individual companies that make up the Rairdon Auto Group. KUOW's John Ryan reports.

TRANSCRIPT

Elizabeth Scott of Monroe filed the complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). She's a geologist, a stay–at–home mom and a friend of Kristiansen's challenger, Democrat Eleanor Walters. Scott says she was looking up campaign records for her local elected officials when she noticed something strange in Dan Kristiansen's file: multiple contributions from auto dealers with Rairdon in the name.

Scott: "When you check his records, Rairdon comes up multiple times, over and over again, and it's the maximum contribution each time. The first thought is that these contributions way exceed what's legal."

Whether the contributions are legal or illegal hinges on whether the companies that made them are legally affiliated. Once a company has given the maximum, none of its subsidiaries or affiliates or political action committees can give any more.

Dan Kristiansen's campaign filings show maximum contributions from Rairdon's of Bellingham, Rairdon's Chrysler Jeep of Kirkland, Rairdon's Dodge Chrysler Jeep of Monroe, and Rairdon's Dodge Chrysler Jeep of Arlington.

The state auto dealers political action committee also gave the combined $1,600 maximum for the primary and general elections. The rairdon.com website makes it clear that the Rairdon dealerships are affiliated.

Video: "Welcome to The Rairdon Automotive Group! I invite you to experience the difference of purchasing and servicing your vehicle with our family–owned and operated dealer group, with six locations to serve you between Auburn and Bellingham."

But they might not be affiliated in the way the state's campaign–finance law specifies. None of the dealerships own any of the others, and there's no parent company owning them all.

Greg Rairdon is president of each of the four dealerships that donated to Kristiansen. He told KUOW that the dealerships are all unique, individual companies with unique shareholders. He says he and his wife Angela own less than half of each business. So each company has a right to make its own campaign contributions.

State law also says companies are affiliated if they have overlapping membership and a pattern of contributions that indicates an ongoing relationship. The state business licenses for the four auto dealerships list Greg Rairdon, his wife Angela and a third individual in each case, as the people in control of each company.

According to campaign filings, all the Rairdon contributions to the Kristiansen campaign were made on a single day — June 14. Greg Rairdon says he doesn't know what date his staff wrote the checks. He says if an individual corporation wants to make a donation, it doesn't matter when they do it.

Even critic Elizabeth Scott says it's hard to figure out the PDC's complicated rules of what makes two companies affiliated.

Scott: "In order to establish that there were even affiliation rules with campaign contributions, it takes a lot of very persistent searching."

The sums involved are small potatoes compared to the millions flowing into ballot measures and midterm congressional races. But Elizabeth Scott says that shouldn't matter.

Scott: "Campaign finance law needs to be there for a reason. It's reasonable to expect that our legislators don't play favorites with businesses or even individuals of the public."

Representative Dan Kristiansen did not return phone calls seeking his comment. He's one of seven co–sponsors of a bill that would lower the business tax specifically on auto dealers.

State officials received Scott's complaint in July. They say they expect to decide whether to open a formal investigation in the next few days.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

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