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APOC reduces fines for PTAs, other donors to bond campaigns

Nathaniel Herz

An assortment of parent teacher associations and building industry firms were issued $50 fines Wednesday by the state agency that enforces campaign finance laws.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission had initially proposed penalties as large as $20,800 for the associations and businesses, which failed to file required forms after donating money to groups pushing for passage of bonds for schools and other projects in Anchorage municipal elections.

While the penalties were drastically reduced, officials at the advocacy groups say the threats of the larger fines will have a chilling effect on their ability to raise money in the future.

"The damage is already done," said Charles Wohlforth, the co-chair of a group called School Bonds Yes! "Even though the fines were reduced, we had people who were really dismayed and went through a lot of concern over this and are probably going to be very hard to get money out of again."

APOC Executive Director Paul Dauphinais declined to respond to Wohlforth's comments.

Groups that were issued fines include the Airport Heights Elementary School, Girdwood K-8 and West High School PTAs, as well as several local engineering and consulting firms like Dowl HKM, CRW Engineering, and Cornerstone General Contractors.

School Bonds Yes! and another advocacy group, Anchorage Tomorrow, 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 PTAs also donate, as well as individuals interested in supporting education and public infrastructure.

APOC didn't notify some of the groups of their violations for more than a year. That meant the fines, which are assessed on a daily basis, racked up.

Dauphinais has attributed the delay in catching the violations to limited staff time and a limited budget.

Many of the groups said they had been unaware of the reporting requirements.

In her appeal, the president of the Girdwood group argued its $500 contribution to School Bonds Yes! was "not done out of malice or done secretively."

"Our donation was done out of love, determination and dedication to our students, with the hope that School Bonds Yes! would be able to get the word out to the voting public how the school bond package impacted our small community," wrote the president, Sharnee Epley, requesting that APOC's proposed $20,800 fine be waived entirely.

Epley also noted School Bonds Yes! had already disclosed the Girdwood group's contribution in a separate form.

APOC staff acknowledged in a report that the proposed fine was "significantly out of proportion" to the size of the $500 donation and proposed the $50 fine.

Mike Boots, the controller at Cornerstone General Contractors, said that the firm's experience with APOC "will make us more careful."

"Whether it makes us wary about actually making contributions at all -- that remains to be seen," he added.

He said Cornerstone had not been aware of its reporting requirement, and he urged APOC to work with advocacy groups to make sure that donors understand the rules in the future.

Carla Burkhead, a member of Airport Heights' PTA, said the group paid the $50 fine for its $800 donation with coins and small bills stuffed inside a Costco coffee can.

"We deal in small change, and essentially, we were being fined for a small change contribution, so it just seems fitting that we should pay for it in a small-change type of way," Burkhead said. "When I handed it over to the secretary at the APOC office, she just looked at me, and she goes: 'That's nice. Well, it's going to the state.' "

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


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com