A political strategist says he's paying people to stand beside signature gatherers and convince voters not to sign a petition to repeal Alaska's new oil tax cuts.
Art Hackney, who regularly works on campaigns for Republican candidates such as U.S. Rep. Don Young and others, said he began deploying six workers and a small number of volunteers on Saturday. Wearing placards with messages like "Don't sign ... until you know all the facts," they attempt to talk people out of supporting the repeal effort.
Signature gatherers said it's the first time they've seen the tactic used in Alaska.
"It's shocking that a political consultant would be funding, paying people and setting up an organized disruption operation," said Pat Lavin, a leader for the repeal effort.
Hackney said he's trying to counter misinformation spread by referendum backers and that his workers have done nothing wrong.
"It is legal and proper that we would have people on the public commons arguing on this issue as it is for them to collect the signatures," Hackney said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "So we are simply exercising that right."
The referendum would allow voters to choose whether the oil tax overhaul should stand or be repealed. Backers need about 30,000 signatures to place the question on the August 2014 ballot. The deadline to submit the signatures is July 13.
Lavin said Thursday that referendum backers had collected about 2,000 in the previous two days. One signature-taker, Bill Buchwald, stood outside Barnes & Noble in the afternoon, flanked by women holding signs that urged voters not to sign the paperwork "before you know all the facts."
Hackney's effort drew protests from referendum backers Monday when Buchwald complained that a worker hired by Hackney was putting her hands on shoulders of voters who were about to sign outside the Midtown bookstore.
Police showed up and investigated Thursday. Officer Kevin Armstrong said he interviewed the woman accused of interfering with the signatures, Sarah Hetemi, and found no evidence she had broken any law. A security employee for the store told Armstrong he did not see Hetemi place her hands on anyone, the officer said.
Hetemi told police the referendum signature gatherer was the one who was out of line, blocking her with his body from talking to voters. No one was cited.
"They both have the same rights underneath the law," Armstrong said.
Hetemi was still holding a sign outside Barnes & Noble later Thursday afternoon. She referred questions to Hackney. Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, observed the scene on Thursday and said he recognized Hetemi as a Senate page. Hetemi wouldn't answer questions about how she got involved beyond saying she was passionate about the issue.
When Hetemi talks to voters, she said, she tells them to visit a website, imadeamistake.org. Hackney said he created the website to make it easy for people to send an email to the state asking to remove their signature if they've already signed. There's a form on the site to do that.
She also refers people to another site paid for by the Alaska Support Industry Alliance with information opposing the repeal effort.
Hackney said he didn't coordinate the effort with the Alliance, a trade organization that supports the oil industry and has spent more than $40,000 on advertising and other costs related to opposing the referendum.
Alliance general manager Rebecca Logan said the group's board discussed the idea of using people to "shadow" signature gathers in April, but decided against the idea. She said Hackney told the group he might use the tactic.
"I don't know that anybody has ever done it up here before," she said.
The counter-effort by Hackney has created some unwanted tension, she said, with referendum backers calling the police.
"Questioning isn't bad," she said. "But if people are actually harassing people, that's going to hurt, because that shouldn't happen. What it hurts is the credibility of our side."
A Craigslist ad, still online as of Thursday night, advertised the counter-petition job for $15 an hour under the headline "Political Grassroots (Anchorage)."
"Do you have a family member working in the energy industry? Do you vote Republican? Do you like to talk to people?" the ad asked.
Hackney said he did not place the ad directly, but said it was likely posted by one of the people he hired in an effort to recruit more people. He said he and his wife have budgeted enough of their personal money to hire up to 20 people through the July 13 signature deadline.
Hackney, who has been heavily involved in efforts to stop development of the Pebble mine, has also sought to raise money to pay for advertisements that would press Sen. Mark Begich to publicly support or renounce the tax cut repeal effort.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said he gathered signatures for the repeal effort Thursday at Barnes & Noble with two people, including Hetemi, protesting the effort.
He collected about 25 signatures in 90 minutes, he said. "People would go up. She and her friend would approach them, and then they would walk over to me and sign the book," Gara said.
Supporters of the tax cut, led by Gov. Sean Parnell, argue it will make Alaska more competitive for additional investment from the oil industry and will lead to new oil production. Alaska relies heavily on oil revenue, and while production has been on a downturn for years, the trend has been masked to some extent by higher prices.
Opponents argue the tax cuts will cripple the state budget and give too much to the oil companies with no guarantees. The group behind the referendum is Vote Yes -- Repeal the Giveaway.
By KYLE HOPKINS