Regulators are debating if Pebble mine opponent Bob Gillam's private air service broke Alaska election law by flying anti-Pebble candidates into remote Southwest Alaska villages to campaign and only charging them for fuel.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission held an 11-hour hearing Thursday on the case, which is fiercely contested. The APOC commissioners didn't reach a decision after deliberating Friday and plan to take it up again this week.
APOC staff accuses Gillam's air service of breaking Alaska's ban on corporate campaign contributions with flights last year for Nana Kalmakoff and Michelle Ravenmoon, who were running for the Lake and Peninsula Borough Assembly. The wealthy Gillam owns a home in the Lake and Peninsula Borough and has financed efforts to fight the Pebble mine prospect, which he and other opponents assert would endanger the salmon runs of Bristol Bay. Most recently he bankrolled a successful borough ballot initiative that's meant to stop the mine but is the subject of court challenges.
Assistant Attorney General John Ptacin, who is representing the APOC staff in the case, said it's illegal for a corporate air service to charge candidates only for fuel and not factor in the costs of the pilots, pilot lodging, airplane maintenance, etc. "I think this case was made when (the accused) agreed they only charged fuel," Ptacin said. "Everything since then is just a reverse engineering to try and convince you that fuel only is somehow commercially reasonable."
The candidates rode on the planes of RBG Bush Planes LLC, which is owned by Gillam and bears his initials. The company is not a commercial service and exists to transport Gillam and anyone else he wants. The planes are also sometimes used by Gillam's McKinley Capital Management to fly VIP's visiting Alaska to the Bristol Bay area for recreation. McKinley provides the pilots in return for Gillam allowing company use of his planes.
Gillam says the candidates were just hitching a ride and the plane trips were part of the ongoing travels throughout the region by George Jacko, a Gillam employee who the businessman described as "my eyes and ears in Bristol Bay." Gillam's attorney said Jacko made the trips to meet with local village leaders and the candidates just tagged along. Attorney Tim McKeever, representing Gillam, said charging the candidates for fuel met the "commercially reasonable" test described in a 2006 APOC opinion about how much a politician needs to pay for campaign air travel. The candidates had no control over the timing and the itinerary so it's not fair to compare it to a charter flight, he said.
"The bottom line here is that these ladies got a ride on an airplane at a time and place not of their choosing...we believe that under the (2006 APOC opinion), which is the only guidance we have, that payment of fuel costs, the actual costs incurred by RBG, is a perfectly commercially reasonable way to calculate the cost of these flights," he said. The candidates argue they acted in good faith, paid what they thought was their fair share, as calculated by Gillam's air service, and that APOC staff failed to prove they got an unreasonable deal. Kalmakoff paid $1,184 and Ravenmoon $346.
The argument is over two trips last year, the first from Sept. 3 to Sept. 6. Gillam's agent Jacko met Ravenmoon in Point Alsworth and they flew to Igiugik, where she campaigned, according to APOC. They then flew to Chignik Lagoon and spent the night. The next day they picked up Kalmakoff in Chignik Lake and flew to Perryville, where there was more campaigning. There were reportedly subsequent flights and campaigning in Chignik Lake, Levelock and Nondalton. The candidates each paid RGB Bush Planes $306.21, according to the APOC report.
The next trip was Sept. 17 and 18. Jacko met Kalmakoff in Chignik Lagoon and they flew to Point Alsworth and picked up Ravenmoon.
They then flew to Kokanok where the candidates campaigned. Ravenmoon, who only flew on the RBG plane on the first day of the trip, paid $40.55 for the travel and Kalmakoff, who did a more flying on that trip, reimbursed $878.39.
Gillam's attorney Mckeever said the amounts that the candidates paid represented half the cost of the fuel for the Sept.3-Sept. 6 trip and, inadvertently, the entire fuel cost for the second trip on Sept. 17-18. McKeever said Federal Aviation Administration rules would not allow RBG Bush planes to charge fares for the flights because it not a commercial airline. Assistant Attorney General Ptacin disputed that interpretation of FAA rules and said that, even if it were true, that means that Gillam's airplanes should not have been flying candidates for political office at all.
Reach Sean Cockerham at email@example.com or 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News