Alaska’s campaign finance laws require advertising materials disclose the top three contributors to any independent expenditure campaign. It’s a law intended to inform voters about who’s backing the speech that’s trying to influence the elections.
In the case of the group opposing the initiative to raise oil taxes, One Alaska reports that its top three contributors are BP Alaska, ConocoPhillips Alaska and ExxonMobil. It’s a disclosure that’s been regularly updated through the course of the campaign with Hilcorp sometimes making the list.
But to look at the Defend Alaska’s Elections, the group opposing the election reform, you’d think that John Sturgeon, former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell have bankrolled a campaign that’s spending nearly a quarter-million dollars to oppose Ballot Measure 2.
In reality, the group’s biggest contributors since Sept. 16 have been the Alaska Republican Party ($50,000), the Republican State Leadership Committee ($50,000) and Americans for Prosperity ($45,000). Sturgeon, Begich and Parnell combined for $1,500 in contributions to the group. Yes on 2 for Better Alaskans, the group backing the measure has filed several complaints, arguing that the group is intentionally misleading voters.
Defend Alaska Elections says it isn’t.
That’s because, as its attorney told the Alaska Public Offices Commission at a hearing on Monday, Defend Alaska Elections has figured out a neat trick to completely skirt the rules and run ads with outdated disclosures, thereby masking the group’s backers to the public. Just produce and place all the ads you plan to run by taking on debt before the big-dollar contributions come in.
“Once they have been produced and placed, Alaska law does not require campaigns to go back and to revamp those disclosures at that point,” argued attorney Lee Baxter, in a point that he would repeat several times throughout the hour-long hearing.
The only problem: APOC commissioners didn’t seem so convinced.
“How is that not a violation of this statute then? How come you didn’t change the contributors to reflect the top-three contribution list?” asked Commissioner Dan LaSota, of Fairbanks, after noting that the campaign continued to run ads with the original disclosure after reporting the big-ticket contributions in mid-September.
Baxter gave the same response: The ads had already been produced and it’s unreasonable for the group to be expected to update its disclosures.
“I’m not certain about that statute and your interpretation,” LaSota replied, noting that the disclosures discuss the time of the communication. “I’m not certain and I won’t be until I study it more closely.”
The commission will have some time to study the issue. After spending a little more than 30 minutes in an executive session, the board voted 3-2 to fully take up the issue at a second hearing on Wednesday.
Yes on 2 for Better Elections, the group backing the ballot measure, has brought several claims against Defend Alaska Elections—including campaigning before registering as an official group—but its attorney on Monday said that the disclosure is the most key issue they want to see resolved ahead of the general election. Attorney Samuel Gottstein argued the outdated disclosure, which is still running on radio ads, is misleading voters while they are beginning to vote. The state began mailing absentee ballots on Monday.
“Importantly, DAE’s argument would turn the statute upside down and turn the concept of three largest contributors on its head. How can you use a three largest contributors listing based on a few thousand dollars for a quarter-of-a-million-dollar ad buy?” he asked. “The voters are irreparably harmed every day because voting has effectively begun. This is not a speculative violation, this is a clear violation of the law based on DAE’s own disclosures.”
He also argued that the disclosure—of Sturgeon, Begich and Parnell being the top three contributors—was never correct. He noted that disclosures listed the in-kind contribution of a Facebook page by Corey Mulder as being worth $500, which would have made Mulder the second-largest contributor with Begich and Parnell tied for third (with several other contributors).
Baxter defended the group’s original disclosure, arguing that the contribution from Mulder had been overvalued and had been since revised to a lower number in an amended report.
“Defend Alaska made a very silly first-timer campaign mistake,” he said.
Defend Alaska’s campaign manager is Brett Huber, a former advisor to Gov. Mike Dunleavy who ran his successful 2018 election campaign.