Alek Skarlatos, a Republican nominee for Congress in Oregon, was cleared this week of violating campaign finance law, months after a Democratic-aligned group filed a complaint alleging he improperly funded his campaign with money from a nonprofit he also controlled.
"Democrats have created a false controversy to smear Alek Skarlatos," campaign manager Ross Purgason said in a statement. "The (Federal Election Commission) has dismissed these false allegations."
Skarlatos, who is running for a second time to represent a coastal Oregon district, established the nonprofit veterans group 15:17 Trust shortly after losing his bid for the seat in 2020, pledging to advocate for veterans "left high and dry" by the country "they put their lives on the line for." And he used $93,000 left over from his campaign to help seed the nonprofit.
But several months later, after Skarlatos decided in 2021 to run for the seat again, the nonprofit transferred $65,000 back to his campaign. The transfers of money were the subject of an Associated Press story last year, which was followed by a complaint filed with the FEC by End Citizens United, a Democrat-aligned group.
Campaign finance laws prohibit candidates from self-dealing and from accepting illicit money from the often opaque and less regulated world of political nonprofits. That includes a prohibition on candidates donating campaign cash to a nonprofit they control, as well as a broader ban on accepting contributions from such groups, legal experts say.
But in this case, the FEC found that Skarlatos' nonprofit wasn't very active and failed to raise much money, taking in about $1,800. The agency also determined that the transfers of cash from Skarlatos' campaign to his nonprofit and back were done in a short enough time span that it likely amounted to a legitimate refund.
"Without information to indicate the contrary, the $65,000 payment from the 15:17 (Trust) to the Committee was likely a bona fide refund," the agency states in a filing, which was provided by the Skarlatos campaign and has not yet been released publicly.
The AP's story last year detailed how Skarlatos' nonprofit was soliciting money online but otherwise was maintaining a decidedly low profile and had not yet released annual tax paperwork detailing how much it had raised and how the money was spent it.
The story also noted how laws governing transfers of money by candidates to nonprofits they operate are intended to prevent sidestepping the ban on the personal use of campaign funds. And it detailed how Skarlatos had previously collected $43,000 from his 2020 campaign in mileage reimbursements, rent and expenses vaguely listed as contractor campaign staff.
The FEC did not receive a full explanation of how the nonprofit spent the money Skarlatos lent it, including the remaining $28,000 that was not refunded to his campaign. The Skarlatos campaign said about $14,000 was spent on fundraising, but an additional $14,000 was not accounted for in the filing released by the agency.
"Alex Skarlatos admitted to the FEC that his charity is essentially a scam and that it’s ‘inactive,’" said End Citizens United spokesman Adam Bozzi. "The fact that he failed to help veterans saved him from a violation is a warning for voters not to trust him."
Skarlatos was a member of the Oregon National Guard when he gained a measure of fame in 2015, helping to 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."