Surprising groups oppose new measure against corruption

PROPOSITION 1: High-profile critics call initiative vague.

May 22, 2010 

In Alaska, where prosecutors have sent a string of politicians and bribe-payers to federal prison in recent years, who could oppose what has been billed as an anti- corruption ballot measure?

How about the AARP. The Resource Development Council and the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, the Alaska Democratic Party, and the AFL-CIO. Unions for police, teachers, firefighters and other public employees. Municipalities and boroughs from around the state.

They've all come out against the anti-corruption initiative. They say the five-page measure is vague, confusing and so overly broad that it could bar a state contractor's grandmother from making a campaign contribution or a fire chief from testifying before the Anchorage Assembly without an invite. They say if voters in August make the ballot measure state law, parts are sure to be struck down in court as unconstitutional.

"There isn't a soul in this state that isn't against corruption, but to label it anti- corruption and make it so convoluted, and not be clear and concise, becomes the challenge," said Wayne Stevens, the state Chamber's chief executive.

Backers say the wording for Proposition 1 can always be tweaked later by the Legislature and that much of the criticism is rooted in myth, not reality. "Alaska is being ruined by the special interests, crooked government contractors and manipulative state lobbyists who are looting our state treasury," Dick Randolph, former state legislator and chairman of pro-initiative Clean Team Alaska, says in a campaign mailer and on the group's website.

According to ballot language approved this month by Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, the measure would ban campaign contributions from government contractors and their relatives, outlaw publicly-funded lobbying or campaigning, and generally bar government contractors from hiring a legislator out of office less than two years.

Violating a provision would amount to a criminal misdemeanor and bring fines and other penalties. For instance, a repeat offender using public funds to lobby or campaign would be banned from public office or a government job for 10 years.

The fight over Prop. 1 has been quiet so far but is sure to explode over the summer in what is expected to be a big money, high-profile campaign played out on television and radio.

Pro-initiative Clean Team Alaska, which has been getting most of its money from an organization that keeps its donors secret, isn't saying how much it expects to spend. It has set up headquarters in a second-floor office suite downtown with three staff members and an intern.

The opposition, which calls itself the Stop the Gag Law group, expects to spend $1 million, considering it cost $1.4 million to defeat an identical measure in South Dakota. Leaders of other organizations are working on the cause and the opposition will soon will have a campaign manager on board.

IS IT A GAG LAW?

The two sides have opposite views on what the initiative would or would not do.

Clean Team Alaska proponents say it would limit the size of government by stopping publicly funded lobbying and would root out corruption by banning campaign donations or offers of perks from government contractors.

Opponents, lead by the Alaska Municipal League and the Alaska AFL-CIO, anticipate an expensive fight because of the populist appeal of anything that purports to be "anti-corruption."

"It sounds like something we'd really like to have. But as often is, the devil is in the details," said Joelle Hall, AFL-CIO operations director. "The method by which they seek to remedy the problem is to remove thousands of Alaskans from the political process. We just think that's the wrong answer."

The opponents say Prop. 1 would make it impossible for local communities to get their needs heard in Juneau, and countless Alaskans would be barred from making campaign contributions.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, state House Speaker Mike Chenault and Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau are among the prominent leaders who are against Prop. 1.

The initiative says public officials, candidates, public employees, and school employees cannot use "tax revenues or any other public resources for campaign, lobbying, or partisan purposes." Only if invited could a public official or employee testify before a public body, initiative opponents contend.

"So you can't call them on the phone unless you go home. You can't travel to Juneau unless you pay for your own way. I mean it's very, very clear," said Kathie Wasserman, chair of the opposition's Stop the Gag Law campaign and executive director of the Alaska Municipal League.

Comeau said as she sees it, she couldn't call or e-mail legislators or even testify publicly on education bills unless a lawmaker asked her to.

"It definitely would be a chilling impact on being an active citizen for all public employees, and I just think it's wrong," Comeau said.

The Resource Development Council, a lobbying and advocacy group, would either have to stop lobbying, or kick out public members such as the city of Anchorage and the North Slope Borough, neither of which it wants to do, said executive director Jason Brune.

Clean Team backers say the initiative wouldn't end all public lobbying. While governments couldn't pay for contract lobbyists, public officials could still call up a legislator or even travel to Juneau at taxpayer expense to testify and work the halls, campaign spokesman Jason Cline said.

"This law is not a gag law, as it's been called," Ken Jacobus, an Anchorage attorney advocating for Clean Team, told the Resource Development Council earlier this month as the council was considering its position. "People are as free after the law has been enacted to communicate with the government as they were before."

MAGIC WORDS

On contracting, the measure says that holders of public office or candidates "with ultimate responsibility" for the award of a government contract cannot accept any contributions -- campaign or otherwise -- from the contract holder or immediate family.

"Immediate family" goes far beyond spouses and children to include grandparents and grandchildren, siblings and in-laws, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. The measure covers any government contract over $500.

So who would be barred from accepting campaign contributions? The two sides don't agree. Maybe some legislators. Maybe all. The governor. Assembly members. Jacobus said he thought it would mainly apply to contracting officials, and prevent them from trading contracts for perks.

"The magic words are 'ultimate authority.' ... I'm not sure who has ultimate authority over every contract in Alaska," Anchorage lawyer Jeff Feldman, who has been volunteering for the Stop the Gag Law opposition, told the Resource Development Council.

Opponents say it's pretty clear that under the initiative Anchorage Assembly members and candidates couldn't take campaign contributions from city contractors or members of their extended family, under the initiative. But they question how candidates could possibly know who all the contractors were, much less their nieces and nephews.

Holders of no-bid contracts would be under especially restrictive rules. They couldn't make any campaign contribution to any candidate for any office until two years after the contract ended, under the initiative.

The initiative also targets unions. It defines public employee labor agreements as "no-bid government contracts." It would essentially outlaw payroll deductions for union political action committees. Union officials would be barred from making any political campaign contributions.

"Is that not inherently corrupting, the idea that you can hand out contracts on behalf of people who give you campaign contributions?" Cline said.

Courts have generally interpreted campaign donations as a constitutional free speech right. The state Attorney General's Office says the ballot measure's limits may be unconstitutional.

MYSTERY DONOR

Clean Team says it can claim just one organization on its side so far: Alaskans for Open Government.

As of Feb. 1, Alaskans for Open Government had provided more than $80,000 to Clean Team, according to Clean Team's reports to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. That's out of about $85,000 in contributions as of that date. Jacobus gave most of the rest.

So what is Alaskans for Open Government and where does its money come from? Jacobus is its registered agent but didn't return repeated calls to discuss it. Its Web page includes a short description about its commitment to a more open and transparent government and random news stories and posts, including several about former Gov. Sarah Palin. But it doesn't list donors.

Though its contributions pay her salary at the anti- corruption campaign committee, Clean Team campaign manager Heidi Verougstraete said she couldn't speak to where Alaskans for Open Government gets its money since she's not a member.

Jerry Rohacek, one of three directors on AOG's corporate filings, said he wasn't sure what the organization was all about either. "I kind of vaguely remember that I was asked to be on something like that," said Rohacek, a libertarian Republican and retired economics professor.

APOC executive director Holly Hill said her staff is reviewing whether the organization must register as a political action committee and report its donors.

On the other side, Stop the Gag Law had brought in only about $355 as of its Feb. 1 report. But much more has come in since then, according to Hall. The campaign has received more than $300,000 so far, including money from unions, retired teachers, and the Alaska Municipal League, she said.

The next campaign financial reports to APOC are due July 26.


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

More on Proposition 1

To read more on Prop. 1, go to the websites of the groups for and against:

• Clean Team Alaska, supporting the ballot measure: AKCorruption.com

• Stop the Gag Law, against the measure, StopTheGagLaw.com

To read the entire five-page initiative, go to: elections.alaska.gov/petitions/07ANCO/07anco.pdf

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