Marijuana legalization backers file campaign finance complaint against opposition group

Laurel Andrews

The campaign backing a ballot measure to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Alaska filed a complaint with the Alaska Public Offices Commission Thursday alleging that statements made by a campaign spokesperson for "Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2" either highlighted a violation of state campaign disclosure laws or misled the public. 

The complaint, written by Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska political director Chris Rempert, alleges a “deception of the public trust” by opposition group “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2.”

The complaint hinges on statements made by Vote No on 2 campaign spokesperson Kristina Woolston. Woolston is majority owner of Northwest Strategies, an advertising firm retained by Vote No on 2 for various campaign activities.

In an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce debate Monday, Woolston identified herself as a volunteer for Vote No on 2. Woolston told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner after the debate that Northwest Strategies is donating its time to the campaign.

State finance laws require that a donation of time be filed as a campaign contribution with APOC. Thursday's complaint alleges that statements made by Woolston demonstrate a potential violation of the law. 

Vote No on 2 wrote in an email Friday that “Northwest Strategies is not donating its time to the campaign. Kristina misspoke on one occasion and will clarify with APOC.”

Northwest Strategies has a contract with the campaign that began in June, with a $7,500 monthly retainer, the email states.

Independent expenditure reports show that Vote No on 2 wrote three checks to Northwest Strategies over the course of the summer. In May, Northwest Strategies was written a check for $11,650 for “logo, website and social media development.” In June, the company was written a check for $5,000 for “social media.” On July 10, Northwest Strategies was written a check for $7,500 for “media and advertising.”

The complaint also alleges that Vote No on 2 has failed to disclose services that it says were provided by Northwest Strategies since April 2014 and do not fit within the independent expenditure report descriptions. “Unless respondent has failed to disclose additional expenditures, Northwest Strategies is not being paid a commercially reasonable rate,” Rempert writes.

Vote No on 2 wrote that the company also received $5,000 as a partial payment for work completed prior to June. That work totaled $11,500 for the development of a website, Facebook and other materials. "All required information has been disclosed to APOC," the email states.

Vote No on 2 maintains that Woolston is volunteering for the campaign on personal time. “Neither (Woolston) nor the company is billing for her time spent working on the campaign,” the email states. 

“This is a distraction to divert attention from the severe damage this initiative will do to Alaska,” the email continues.

Rempert alleges that Vote No on 2 is misleading the public as to Woolston’s role with the campaign. “It’s very clear that they are willfully misrepresenting themselves to the public, media and election regulators because they believe it is politically advantageous for them to do so,” Rempert wrote on Friday.

Rempert wrote in the complaint that “She can only call herself a volunteer ... if it is true that her advertising agency has been ‘donating its time’ to the campaign.” 

Deborah Williams, deputy treasurer for Vote No on 2, said Friday that the campaign did not believe Woolston’s volunteer efforts necessitated disclosure to APOC, but that the campaign would work with APOC to ensure it was in full compliance with state laws.

APOC law office assistant Michael Schwahn confirmed Friday morning that the complaint had been filed with APOC the day before. APOC assistant director Jerry Anderson clarified Friday afternoon that technically, the complaint was served on Vote No on 2 on Thursday, and said Vote No on 2 acknowledged receipt of the complaint Friday afternoon. That allowed APOC to officially file the complaint with their offices at Friday around 2:30 p.m.

Woolston is also employed by Chenega Corp., which gave $25,000 to Vote No on 2, the largest single contribution to the campaign. “Kristina’s role as spokesperson for Vote No on 2 is not part of her responsibilities at Chenega. Chenega’s financial support of the campaign was a Board decision,” the email from Vote No on 2 states. Woolston serves as Chenega’s vice president of government relations.

In a Vote No on 2 press release sent out Thursday, Woolston said “the Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol will spend more than half a million dollars on this campaign. We will be lucky to raise a quarter of that, and they want to quibble over whether I am a volunteer. Shame on them; Alaskans will recognize this as a sham and see the dangers of this initiative.”