The House Subcommittee on Legislative Ethics has found probable cause that Rep. Tammie Wilson violated legislative ethics rules for a 2014 mailer she sent to people outside her legislative district, but the Republican has been let off with a warning.
Subcommittee chair Conner Thomas brought the complaint against Wilson for the 2014 legislative mailer to people outside her district informing them of an upcoming meeting about air quality. Wilson disputes whether she used state resources to send the mailer but agrees that the mailer featured her legislative return address, which Thomas argued is using state resources for political purposes and private benefit.
“This provided a private benefit to the legislator or another person. This activity could be construed as a campaigning effort targeted to people outside the existing district of Representative Wilson,” explains the subcommittee complaint, which later added, “Regardless of intent, the committee recognizes the fact that state resources were used to produce and distribute an air quality postcard to individuals not in Representative Wilson’s current legislative district.”
Wilson told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s Erin Granger, who first reported the complaint, that she didn’t use government resources to produce the mailer, a point that Granger notes conflicts with the subcommittee complaint.
“I sent a postcard informing those in the North Star Borough that there was a hearing on air quality. I learned that I can’t put the return address of an LIO on the postcard,” Wilson told the News-Miner. “I used my own funds for the postcards. I used my own funds for the stamps. The only thing I did, which I learned later, is that I can’t include that return address.”
The committee ultimately ruled that no penalty was needed, encouraging Wilson to “read the ethics newsletter more judiciously.”
The meeting in question was a listening session hosted by the Department of Environmental Conservation, which your Midnight Sun editor attended and reported on for the News-Miner. The meeting was packed to the gills with people who had received Wilson’s mailer (many people referred to it as “Tammie’s meeting”) and the whole thing was at the verge of mob behavior. There was heckling, raucous booing and some pretty threatening language pointed at people who were there to support the state efforts to regulate air quality.
The meeting marked a low point in the long-running saga of the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s wintertime air pollution woes, but also a turning point of sorts.
Since the late 2000s a rise in wood heating combined with a natural weather inversion and nearly nonexistent wintertime air currents has lead the area to have some of the worst air quality periods in the country. The strong anti-government streak of the Interior made any regulation nearly impossible for many of the years since then.
Wilson backed numerous successful efforts to curtail the borough’s regulation of air pollution (though a voter-approved memorandum with the state favored local control). Through voter initiative, Wilson and her supporters successfully blocked the borough from regulating air quality in any way. But thanks to the efforts of a group of local advocates concerned about the health impacts of air pollution (air pollution has been linked to a rise in ER visits in the area) the tide has slowly turned.
The angry meeting in January 2014 likely inspired some of the air quality advocates to launch the first real campaign in support of regulating air pollution and the local elections delivered Wilson her first loss on air pollution. Since then, the borough has slowly put into place regulations and penalties for the worst offenders.
An effort this year to get a similar measure on the ballot came up short on signatures. Reporting by the News-Miner said Wilson helped gather signatures. An early version of the story said Wilson collected signatures at her office—which, of course, would be another ethics violation—but the story was later corrected to say she simply helped gather signatures.
Not the first ethics complaint for Wilson’s mailers
Early 2014 was a busy time for the North Pole Republican.
A few months after sending the air quality mailer, Wilson sent another mailer that also netted an ethics complaint. That time she was also let off with a warning.
Then-committee Chair Gary Turner filed the complaint against Wilson for a 2014 campaign mailer that had the appearance of an official legislative correspondence, which he argued used a state resource for political purposes and private benefit.
The mailer in question was sent out in the run up to the 2014 elections as a way for Wilson to introduce herself to a substantially new district thanks to the 2013 redistricting efforts. (The interim plan in place for the 2012 elections put Wilson outside the North Pole district she’s represented both before and after that cycle.)
The mailer included a handwritten note from Wilson welcoming residents to the new District 3 that invited people to contact her directly. It included a “paid for by” designation as is required with campaign mailers.
What got Wilson in trouble is the inclusion of “Alaska State Legislature” in large, bold letters. That, Turner argued, “implies that the mailing was an official legislative mailing versus a campaign mailer.”
The complaint was ultimately dismissed in January 2016 because the committee found Wilson had reached out for advice on the mailer. Though the committee never determined what the advice was, it found she “made a good faith effort to follow the informal advice she received and therefore (the committee) elected to dismiss the complaint.”