Election reform opponents say their actions were cleared by APOC staff, but staff says otherwise

The Alaska Public Offices Commission today heard arguments about whether Defend Alaska Elections, a group opposing the election reform initiative Ballot Measure 2, had intentionally misled voters with its top-three contributors disclosures.

At issue are several radio ads that say Defend Alaska Elections’ top three contributors are John Sturgeon, former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell. Those ads are currently playing even though several big-dollar contributions have come in from Republican groups have arrived, dwarfing the contributions made by the trio.

The group defends this move by arguing the ads were produced and placed either before or on the day that those large-dollar contributions arrived.

Yes on 2 for Better Elections, the group backing the initiative and behind the complaint that brought this issue to APOC in the first place, argues that the ads should have been updated to reflect the group’s top three contributors at the time they started playing on the radio on Sept. 23.

They charge that the group and its campaign manager Brett Huber rushed to get the ads produced and sent to media buyers either before or on Sept. 17, the day the campaign contributions arrived in order to skirt the law and cash in on the name recognition of Sturgeon, Begich and Parnell. They point out that the group didn’t have the money on hand for a quarter-million-dollar ad campaign, which was taken on as a debt, but much of that money arrived with the big-ticket contributions. They’re seeking to force Defend Alaska Elections to update their ads for the remainder of the election season.

In front of the commission today, Defend Alaska Elections’ attorney Matt Singer argued the disclosures were within the law, that updating them would be an infringement on First Amendment speech and that APOC staff cleared the maneuver ahead of time.

As for that last point, APOC campaign disclosure coordinator Tom Lucas disagrees with that version of events but stopped short of definitively saying what Defend Alaska Elections has done is wrong.

“The critical question is when something has been produced and placed? That’s the critical question?” Singer asked.

“The critical question is when it has been disseminated,” Lucas said.

He added, though, that disseminated in terms of a radio ad has been typically taken to mean produced and placed with a radio station but later added that if there’s any change to the content or schedule of those ads that the disclosure would need to be updated. He also noted that Huber never talked about buying ads several weeks ahead of time and that he had never in his career seen this being used to lock in the top disclosures ahead of time.

Asked in cross examination by Yes on 2 for Better Elections’ attorney Samuel Gottstein what he would advise Huber to do with the ads, Lucas declined but said it’s important that the disclosure is clear and honest.

“I have had conversations with our users who’ve asked about their top three and I have indicated in the past that it shouldn’t be a ruse,” he said.

In testimony before the commission today, Huber said that he had all the ads produced and sent to the buyers either before or on the same day that those big-money contributions arrived. He argued that he was just trying to be a prudent campaign manager and claimed, under oath, that he had no definitive knowledge of when the contributions would arrive, even though some communications show him asking the buyers to quickly send him an invoice.

In closing arguments, Gottstein frequently described Huber’s actions as a ruse. He said the invoice and debt cannot stand in place of the placement of the ads and warned that, taken to its hypothetical conclusion, a future campaign could do this months in advance in order to conceal the backers of the a campaign.

“There is simply no evidence that DAE placed any radio advertisements before Sept. 17 and they certainly had not started to run. Instead, it is pretty clear that DAE asked its big-money donors to wait a day or two before contributing so it could try to manipulate the system, create a ruse and hide its true financial backers,” he said.

The commissioners closed the meeting and went into executive session to deliberate on the issue. Its chair said a written order will be released before the close of business on Thursday.

Singer said if his party was ruled against, they would take the issue to Superior Court.

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