Last week, the Alaska Public Offices Commission’s staff recommended a whopping $52,650 fine against Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s campaign for sloppy financial reports spanning the duration of his campaign for office.
Based on a complaint brought by Forrest Dunbar’s campaign, the report found Bronson’s team failed to report expenses and debt when incurred, failed to carry over unpaid debts from one report to the next, failed to return over-the-limit contributions in a timely manner and failed to provide complete details for several expenditures. Taken together, the report is important for several reasons.
First, it’s a pretty sizable fine by APOC standards, which usually opens with blisteringly high fines according to the statutory maximums only to reduce them to a fraction of the maximum—like Rep. Lance Pruitt’s $1 million statutory maximum fine for years of sloppy reporting that resulted in a $20,000 fine. Second, like with fines leveled against Pruitt, the report sends the message (at least to the extent that the underfunded APOC can send a message) that sloppy and misleading reporting won’t be tolerated.
In several parts, the report points out that “none of BFM’S original reports provided the full and complete information required by APOC statutes and regulations” and delivers a pretty harsh assessment in closing:
“After wading through (Bronson for Mayor’s) utterly confusing reports for many days, it is clear to staff that the public had no idea of what was going on in the (Bronson for Mayor) campaign until well after the April 6, 2021 election and the May 11, 2021 runoff elections,” concludes the report. “Under all the circumstances staff recommends no reduction to the civil penalty in the case.”
The report is also critical of the Bronson campaign, which had pledged to quickly fix all its problems when the complaints were first brought, for waiting until after the run-off election was over to provide substantial amendments to the earlier reports.
“It is important to note that in denying Complainant’s request for expedited consideration, the Commission relied on the representation of counsel for BFM that any violations would be expeditiously corrected with amendments to campaign disclosure reports and return of any prohibited contributions,” explained the report, later adding, “As the investigation revealed, it was not until BFM’s May 11, 2021, amendments to its year-start, 30-day and 7-day reports that the reports came even close to compliant.”
The ultimate fine and penalty will be left to APOC commissioners when they meet next.
Why it matters
As the Dunbar campaign argued throughout the process, the sloppy reporting had the impact of making it impossible to track what the Bronson campaign was getting up to, how it was being funded and how to best respond. Did this have an impact on the outcome of the race? Hard to say, but another thing to keep in mind is that the sloppy reporting and lingering questions—like how the Bronson campaign got ahold of private polling information—make it difficult to get a full (well, full under the statutory and regulatory guidelines) picture of the finanacial influences on the new administration. Campaign finance documents don’t stop being useful information the day the campaign is over, but help understand—to an extent—the influences and interests of an elected official moving forward. It’s still not entirely clear if we have a fully picture of the Bronson campaign’s activity.
APOC’s budget has been slashed left and right, with its pleas for funding largely going ignored by the folks they’re regulating, and it has left the agency with limited capacity to review and quickly act upon the complaints brought to it.
Hopefully, it’s something that legislators in the future reconsider because this limited capacity is clearly something that the Bronson campaign and others are starting to bank on. The only reason any of this came to the forefront in the first place was the work of Dunbar campaign treasurer and APOC whiz Paula DeLaiarro, who also brought the complaints against Pruitt. In a prepared statement accompanying the release of the report against Bronson, DeLaiarro said this was particularly bad faith.
“Given that those amendments were filed on the day of the Runoff Election – after the polls closed, no less – indicate that the Bronson campaign never intended to fully and accurately disclose its activity in a timely manner. It is now clear that the Commissioners were hoodwinked by Bronson’s counsel, Stacey Stone, of Holmes Weddle & Barcott,” she said. “With no incentive to clean up its reports, the Bronson campaign elected to run out the clock before disclosing substantial debt and other financial activity just after the election. Having worked on over 40 campaigns, I have never personally encountered a campaign that exhibited such flagrant bad faith behavior.”
Unfortunately, without a several more DeLaiarros and a beefed up APOC, it’s likely to happen again. After all, what’s a $52,650 when you have the mayor’s office and millions of dollars of sole-source contracts to hand out?