Election regulators investigate anti-Pebble radio ads

Elizabeth Bluemink

State election regulators said this week they plan to investigate alleged campaign-law violations by an anti-Pebble group that has been running local radio ads telling Alaskans to vote for candidates who oppose the massive copper and gold prospect in Southwest Alaska.

Truth about Pebble, a nonprofit group that defends the controversial project, filed the election-law complaint against the anti-Pebble group, Alaska Wild Salmon Protection Inc., in early August.

In one 60-second ad airing this month on radio stations across Alaska, a narrator says:

"Candidates think voters are fools. They take a poll, and if voters want a conservative, candidates trip over each other to say, 'I'm the real conservative.' ... Even worse is trying to have it both ways on tough issues, like saying, 'I support Pebble mine and I support Bristol Bay salmon.' "

The narrator adds that a mine will pollute Bristol Bay waterways and then says, "Vote for candidates who oppose Pebble mine."

Truth About Pebble says in its complaint that state law requires the anti-Pebble group to register with the Alaska Public Offices Commission as a group seeking to influence the outcome of an election. Such groups must register if they receive or spend more than $500.

An attorney for Alaska Wild Salmon Protection said Wednesday the complaint is frivolous.

"As a matter of state and federal law, unless whatever message you put on the airwaves tells someone how to vote on a person or a ballot measure, it's not campaign speech," said Scott Kendall, the group's attorney.

APOC said this week it will investigate the complaint and it gave Alaska Wild Salmon Protection until Aug. 31 to respond to the allegations. A hearing date has not been set. The next statewide election is Tuesday; it will be followed by another in November.

If Alaska Wild Salmon Protection is required to register, it also will have to disclose to APOC where it got the money for its ad campaign.

The group has a longtime financial connection to a prominent foe of Pebble, Anchorage businessman Bob Gillam.

According to Gillam's testimony to APOC last year in another campaign-disclosure case involving Pebble, Alaska Wild Salmon Protection was created in 2007 to pay for lobbying in Juneau. Gillam said he donated money to the group.

The new complaint is the latest in a stream of them filed in recent years by both sides in the fight over Pebble. The potential mine is controversial due to its size and its location at the headwaters of two rivers that support Bristol Bay's rich salmon runs. The mining companies studying Pebble could apply for state development permits next year.