Native super-PAC sets stage for new politics

Richard Mauer

The new world of political campaign financing collided with Alaska's U.S. Senate race in spectacular fashion this year, according to the latest federal election reports, with the state's leading Native nonprofit and three wealthy businessmen opening their wallets in ways that weren't legal before.

In its post-election disclosure, Alaskans Standing Together, one of the nation's new "super PACs," reported raising $1.7 million over 38 days in its independent effort to re-elect Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The single biggest contributor, at $308,000, was the Alaska Federation of Natives, a nonprofit with a mission "to promote the common good and general welfare of the Alaskan Native community."

AFN President Julie Kitka said she believed the donation was the first ever to a political candidate in the AFN's 44-year history. She said the money was raised in a special campaign, but she declined to identify the donor or donors, and no federal law will require disclosure. She wouldn't say whether the money came in small batches from many donors, or in lump sums from a few, or whether the organization accepted money from outside the Native community.

Right behind the AFN was GCI, the federally regulated Alaska telecommunications giant, which gave $100,000 in its own name and another $100,000 through its Bush telecom subsidiary, Unicom Inc.

Running as a write-in candidate, Murkowski lost the financial and tactical support of her party when she lost the Republican primary in August to Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller. Alaskans Standing Together provided a sizable boost to what she was able to raise and spend on her own.

Alaskans Standing Together produced its own independent commercials and ads supporting Murkowski and attacking Miller. It generated a flood of buttons, temporary tattoos, stickers and mailings, and paid for representatives in some villages "to get the word out," said spokesman Jason Moore.

The role of regional Native corporations in establishing the super PAC and providing its first $900,000 has been known since before the Nov. 2 election, based on earlier reports it filed.

Now the post-election report of Alaskans Standing Together, filed with the Federal Election Commission last week, shows it never developed into a grass-roots organization. Instead, the Dec. 2 report shows numerous large contributions that would have been illegal before two court decisions this year that struck down restrictions on donations by corporations and groups of individuals.

In addition to the $308,000 from the AFN and $200,000 from GCI, the report shows that Jim Jansen, president of the freight business Lynden Inc., and Robert Gillam, chief executive of McKinley Capital and an ardent foe of the Pebble copper and gold mine project in western Alaska, each gave $50,000. Former banker Ed Rasmuson, who now is chairman of the Rasmuson Foundation, gave $25,000.

Until an appeals court decision in Washington, D.C., changed the law in March, they could have only given $4,800 to Murkowski's primary and general election campaigns and $5,000 to a political action committee. Now there is no limit.

A subsidiary of the Eyak village corporation, Alaska Native General Services LLC, a federal contractor, initially gave $5,000 to Alaskans Standing Together on Oct. 25, but the money was refunded Nov. 12. Spokesman Moore said lawyers were concerned that the donation might have been improper because of a still-existing congressional ban on federal contractors giving money to congressional candidates.

Contributions from seven village corporations and two regional Native corporations were disclosed in the post-election report, ranging from $60,000 (Arctic Slope Regional Corp.) to $1,000 (Tyonek Native Corp.). The earlier reports listed only regional corporations as contributors.

Though she benefited from Alaskans Standing Together, Murkowski said Wednesday that all contributions should be disclosed and she would still favor contribution limits, though she acknowledged it's unlikely Congress can reimpose them.

"I have brought it up in conversation with several colleagues, and we all say we need to be looking at this and figuring out what the answer is, because this was this trial run with these, and the amount of money that we saw I think was just overwhelming, and I don't say overwhelming in a good way," Murkowski said.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned long-standing prohibitions on campaign donations by corporations and unions. In March, that decision was extended by the Washington, D.C., federal appeals court to allow "persons" to pool unlimited sums of money. The catch in both cases is that the contributions have to be made to an independent committee not connected to a candidate, though the committee can support or oppose anyone it wishes. Those committees, like Alaskans Standing Together, have been dubbed super political action committees, because their ability to raise and spend money greatly exceeds what a PAC could do before.

Some nonprofit corporations are still prohibited by the IRS from making campaign contributions -- so called 501(c)(3) corporations, from the section of the tax codes in which they operate. Donations to those corporations are generally tax-deductible.

The AFN is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit -- donations to it are not tax-deductible, and since the January Supreme Court decision, it can get involved in politics.

Murkowski's opponent, Miller, describes Alaskans Standing Together as a corrupt organization, because many of the Native corporations that contributed to it depend on a law giving them special breaks in getting federal contracts. He supports eliminating the break, while Murkowski has supported the companies in the past and would keep it.

Kitka, the AFN president, said the issues go beyond the contracting break to basic services that are still needed in the Bush and which Murkowski also supports.

"We just felt for the interests of Native people and interests of the state that we should just jump in," she said.

In a joint statement, the three individual Alaskan donors to Alaskans Standing Together, along with GCI chief executive Ron Duncan, said they believed Murkowski would be best for the state's economy.

"Senator Murkowski's seniority, her knowledge of the critical role the federal government plays in Alaska, and her demonstrated track record of successfully defending our State's unique interests in Congress convinced us that re-electing her would be best for Alaska," they stated.

A spokesman for GCI said no one for the company would agree to be interviewed about the contributions.

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