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Election fund steers cash to Alaska Senate candidates pledging oil tax cut

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

In front of a packed house for a fundraiser sponsored by Gov. Sean Parnell at the Anchorage Petroleum Club Monday night, Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, announced that she's been "struggling" within the Senate's bipartisan coalition, a group of 10 Democrats and six Republicans that together make up that chamber's majority caucus.

"I have been as vocal as I can possibly be about my frustrations in this particular coalition," she said, particularly with the majority's intransigence on rolling back oil industry taxes. McGuire urged those in attendance to give to the so-called "governor's challenger fund" in order to create a Republican-dominated Senate that has a "business-oriented economic development, resource development platform for a conservative Alaska."

The fund, according to McGuire, was created by Parnell. McGuire and others interested in seeing a conservative majority in the Senate "tapped the governor and his leadership skills. We said this task is too big for us. Can you help us raise money?"

McGuire also credited Parnell's legislative director, Heather Brakes, and the rest of the governor's team for helping to create the fund, which so far has amassed nearly $60,000. 

Money funneled through Alaska GOP

The challenger fund is controlled by Parnell and others on this team, and is parked in the Alaska Republican Party, according to party assistant treasurer Frank McQueary. And because it's couched within the party -- and not a separate group -- individuals can give as much as $5,000. The party can in turn donate as much as $15,000 to a Senate candidate.

A 2010 Alaska Public Office Commission decision found that this type of fund legal providing there is no quid pro quo or binding legal promise tying funds to specific candidates.

Ethics rules ban the governor or any other state employee from working on the fund -- or on any partisan activity -- while on the state's time or dime.

Ethan Berkowitz, a former Democratic Minority Leader in the state House who with then-Gov. Sarah Palin helped craft Alaska's ethics reform law, said that having the governor's legislative director involved with such a fund might not be "unethical" under state law; but that didn't make it smart politics, either.

"The legislative director has to work with the Legislature," he said. "If you shoot at people and don't kill them, it's a big problem."

Later in the day, McGuire contacted Alaska Dispatch to say she didn't mean to imply that Brakes was involved in the fund. She said that any conversations about the challenger fund were with the governor specifically.

In any case, the targets are not moderate Republicans, as some would like, but Democrats who have been vilified for holding back development in this state.

McGuire has for years been part of the Senate bipartisan coalition, which has been under fierce attack by some Republicans, pro-oil industry groups, and Parnell for not going along with the governor's plan to cut as much as $2 billion per year of state taxes on the oil industry.

McGuire has consistently aligned with Parnell on the oil industry tax cut debate. But she's also, on occasion, verged on going rogue: at the end of the last special legislative session, McGuire told Parnell's revenue commissioner and deputy commissioner that the administration's latest tax bill was "half baked" at best.

"In this instance, it's frustrating because you're in a position where you are trying to sell a bill and I just don't feel like you understand the ins and the outs of it and I think that's an unfortunate position for you to be in, both of you to be in. I think it's an unfortunate position for us to be in and I think it's a tremendous waste of government money and time," she said at the time.

Jeff Landfield, who was at the fundraiser and who is running against McGuire, was particularly frustrated that McGuire was allowed to introduce the fund and that Parnell, who spoke after McGuire, thanked her profusely for her leadership.

Landfield, who provided Alaska Dispatch with a partial audio of the event, said he doesn't believe McGuire is a true conservative. "She called the governor's plan half-baked," he said. "She voted for ACES," referring to the Palin-era oil tax reform that ultimately led to the current tax showdown.

"I couldn't believe what she was saying and that she was allowed to speak," he said.

Landfield, like many young idealistic politicians, made his way to party politics via the Ron Paul populist tsunami that changed conservative politics at the state level across the U.S. and in Alaska after Paul's 2008 presidential run. Although Landfield had nothing to do with the recent takeover of Alaska's Republican Party leadership by Paul conservatives, keeping his distance from many of the group's firebrands, he's nonetheless been typecast as among the rabble and thus a problem for establishment Alaska Republicans.

And Landfield has paid for the association.

The wife of a prominent state Republican worked the Petroleum Club Monday night, urging attendees not to support his primary fight to unseat McGuire. According to Landfield, the woman approached him and said, "I know your agenda."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 6:40 p.m. to include a response from Sen. Lesil McGuire regarding Heather Brakes' involvement with the governor's fund. 

Clarification: The story orginally stated that the 2010 APOC decision made such funds legal. However, it ruled that they were legal. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com

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