- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Scores of targeted campaign contributions - most of them below the mandatory reporting threshold - have been turned away by top lawmakers, who cited ethical considerations.

Stunned last fall by the Idaho Land Board’s cancellation of land swaps involving 69 cabins at Priest and Payette lakes, lot lessees are seeking a remedy this year.

But with letters that accompanied January contributions suggesting that “money buys elections” and “I hope I can buy a little of your attention,” some leaseholders have put legislation at risk, said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, whose district includes Priest Lake.

“I’m really disappointed with what some of the letters have said,” Keough said. “But I believe folks did this innocently.”

Keough is working on a bill to clear the way for land exchanges that could help about 350 leaseholders at Priest Lake in Bonner County, as well as about 140 at Payette Lake in Valley County.

“They’re angry, they’re confused, they’re hurt, they want closure,” Keough said. “But this is a distraction and it casts a bad light on the folks at the lakes.”

‘DETRIMENTAL’ TO CAUSE

On Jan. 29, Priest Lake State Lessees’ Association President Denny Christenson wrote his members saying, “Let there be no misunderstanding; your PLSLA Board had absolutely nothing to do with these donations. … It’s unfortunate these donations may result in some legislators forming opinions of Priest Lake lessees in general that are detrimental to your best interests.”

Christenson, of Spokane, told the Statesman that he’s confident the letters were initiated among the 10 percent of lessees who are not members of his group, though he said some of his members did write lawmakers and make contributions.

Contributions ranged from $10 to $150, lawmakers said, but most were at $49 or $50 - just below the $51 limit at which gifts must be itemized on Sunshine reports.

“Somebody must’ve told them the breaking point is $49,” said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who lives on land he owns at the lake but has neighbors on 11 nearby state lots.

The $49 and $50 contributions troubled Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, a member of the Land Board who oversees Idaho’s campaign finance disclosure laws.

Though not illegal, Ysursa said, “When somebody’s sending that stuff around, they’re obviously doing it not to have it disclosed, and that goes against the fiber of the law. I don’t think it was a very good public-policy tactic.”

Keough and Anderson are working on legislation to loosen what Gov. Butch Otter called a “noose around our necks” - a state law that says exchanges must involve “similar lands of equal value, public or private.”

Two complex exchanges involving cabin sites and commercial buildings were canceled in October, in part because of that provision, dashing the Land Board’s four-year effort to divest itself of the sites for more easily manageable and profitable investments. The sites are a tiny slice of 2.4 million acres of endowment lands benefiting state institutions, principally education, which must be managed to obtain the maximum, long-term return.

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