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Republican says French and union coordinated their commercials

Richard Mauer
Richard Mauer

A Republican Party activist complained Thursday that because Sen. Hollis French and the Putting Alaska First Committee used the same bookkeeper and the same companies that produce commercials and buy air time, they were improperly coordinating their campaigns.

At a news conference at state GOP headquarters, Bernadette Wilson showed reporters the complaint she filed against French, a Democrat, and the union-backed Alaska First committee, which has supported Democrats and Republicans who blocked Gov. Sean Parnell's oil-tax cuts in the Senate.

French and officials of the committee said the complaint was without merit and that they were in strict compliance with the law.

Flanked by current Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich and incoming chairman Russ Millette in a room filled with Republican bumper stickers, buttons and campaign signs, Wilson said she was making the complaint on her own and that the party wasn't involved. Ruedrich said he was only giving Wilson a venue for her news conference, though he also helped Wilson answer questions about her complaint.

French is in the middle of a hotly contested race in Senate District J (West Anchorage, Turnagain and Sand Lake) against Republican Bob Bell, a former Anchorage Assemblyman who was fined Wednesday for violating public office disclosure laws.

Wilson said she's asked the Alaska Public Offices Commission for an "expedited hearing" on her complaint and wants to see the commission order French's ads "pulled until we can get a decision." She couldn't explain how, in light of the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech and political association, a state agency could prevent French from airing his commercials before it reaches a decision on her complaint.

APOC Director Paul Dauphinais said he was contacting commission members to see whether they would quickly hear the complaint. He didn't expect an answer until at least Friday.

French and Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO and chairman of Putting Alaskans First, said they didn't coordinate their campaigns and that there was nothing wrong in using the same contractors, which they disclosed in their reports. French said the complaint was a "last-minute smear attack" to help Bell recover lost ground in the final week and a half before the election.

Under state and federal law, including the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United case, an independent organization associated with corporations or unions can spend unlimited money backing or opposing candidates as long as it doesn't "coordinate" its campaign with the candidates.

"Independent expenditures are made without the knowledge, urging, suggestion or cooperation of any specific candidate," Dauphinais said.

Putting Alaska First, associated with the state AFL-CIO, has run commercials in support of the Senate's bipartisan coalition that blocked Parnell's oil taxes. In addition to French and Democrats Bill Wielechowski and Bettye Davis, the committee has backed Republicans Lesil McGuire and Kevin Meyer, all of Anchorage.

Wilson's complaint only cites the committee's support of French.

As evidence of improper coordination, she cited the fact that both French and the committee list Chris Herberger, a Palmer bookkeeper, as the person who prepared their reports to the Public Offices Commission. One report by the Putting Alaska First Committee lists Herberger's title as treasurer but the same report also says the committee's treasurer is Joelle Hall of the AFL-CIO. Both Hall and Beltrami said Herberger is not the treasurer and that the title on the form was a clerical mistake.

She has been the AFL-CIO's bookkeeper for years, Beltrami said, and has nothing to do with decisions involving commercials. French said he, like other Democrats, also used Herberger as a bookkeeper because she's "extremely meticulous" and familiar with campaign finance rules.

Wilson said both French's and the committee's reports to the Public Offices Commission and on file with local television stations show that the Hamburger Co. of Washington, D.C., was involved in producing their commercials. An affiliated company, Mundy Katowitz Media, purchased time on local stations.

Beltrami and French said Hamburger had indeed helped make their commercials with local film crews but there was no coordination between the two campaigns.

"I develop a message and put out ads," said French. "If I am not paying for, approving or authorizing the message that Putting Alaska First is putting out, and vice versa, there's no coordination."

Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage campaign consultant, said he ran into a similar situation a few years ago when he was working with Anchorage Assembly candidate Mike Kenny and an independent organization of Anchorage firefighters who were opposing Chris Birch. Birch and Kenny were facing each other.

A Birch supporter complained that the two groups were coordinating their campaigns through him, Lottsfeldt said.

"APOC's decision was that I was in the clear," he said. Just because the campaigns use a "shared vendor," it's not illegal coordination as long as the vendor is not directing the campaign, Lottsfeldt said.

"Mike Kenny was the guy in charge of his campaign, the firefighters were in charge of their message and I'm just providing a creative service, and I think Hamburger is in the same category," Lottsfeldt said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com