Local firms threatened with big fines for failing to report campaign contributions

Nathaniel Herz

State campaign finance regulators are threatening fines as large as $19,000 for some donors to the campaigns in Anchorage that have pushed for passage of bond packages in city elections.

The contributors, which include several local engineering firms, failed to file reports that are required under state law when individuals or companies make donations of $500 or more to groups like School Bonds Yes!, and Anchorage Tomorrow.

The groups disclose the donations separately, but contributors must still file their own reports.

Officials at the Alaska Public Offices Commission would not say how many contributors had been threatened with fines.

But Bob Bell, the co-chair of School Bonds Yes!, received a letter from APOC this month that said his engineering firm was subject to a $19,050 penalty for an unreported contribution it made to the group in advance of the 2013 city election, which was on April 1.

The fine for failing to report the donation is $50 a day, and APOC's letter said that the report had been due 381 days earlier.

Bell said that he had heard from one other contributor to School Bonds Yes! that had been threatened with a fine, and added that many of the donors to Anchorage Tomorrow had received notices as well.

Bill Johnson, the chair for Anchorage Tomorrow, declined to comment.

School Bonds Yes! typically sends a blank disclosure form in its thank-you letters to donors, "but sometimes the contributors will overlook that," said Charles Wohlforth, who co-chairs the group along with Bell.

"It's easy to do -- it looks like junk mail," Wohlforth added.

Both Anchorage Tomorrow and School Bonds Yes! raise much of their money from local construction and engineering firms and their employees, some of whom can benefit from the work that stems from bonds' passage.

Unions and parent-teacher associations also donate, as well as individuals interested in supporting education and public infrastructure.

Bell and Wohlforth said they feared the proposed fines would deter contributors in the future, even if the penalties are ultimately reduced or waived.

"It's really screwed up our ability to support these projects," Wohlforth said. "The people that received these letters were horrified. Everybody's basically freaking out over it. If APOC wanted to create a lot of problems with meaningless bureaucracy and scaring off people who wanted to help their community, they've done a great job of it."

APOC Executive Director Paul Dauphinais said that his agency was simply enforcing laws that were created by the state Legislature, and stressed that APOC was required to assess fines at the maximum level.

"We have to do what we're told," Dauphinais said. "Just because they get this fine that may appear to be exorbitant -- that doesn't mean that that's what they're going to end up with."

APOC's regulations allow for fines to be reduced under several circumstances, such as when contributors lack experience with campaign finance laws, or if the late reporting "did not cause significant harm to the public."

Dauphinais added that he did not like waiting a year to inform the contributors of their violations, but said his staff had been consumed with other, more pressing work that kept them from picking up the alleged violations earlier.

"We only have so many people and so much time, and so much of an overtime budget," he said.

Wohlforth maintained that APOC had not enforced its disclosure rules for his group's contributors in the past.

And Dennis Linnell, an Anchorage Tomorrow board member and vice president at a local engineering firm that is being threatened with a fine, also said he had been unaware of the requirement.

"I knew that Anchorage Tomorrow had to file," he said. "But I had never heard or had any inkling that contributors had to file. And so, as soon as I heard about it, I checked into it and filed immediately."

But Dauphinais denied that APOC's practices had changed. In fact, the relevant law has been the same since 2002, according to Tamara Douglas, an APOC paralegal .

"The statute is not new and others filed correctly," Dauphinais wrote in a follow-up email. "So this is not something that is not an obscure or unknown statute."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.