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Legislator will pay fines for campaign finance violations

Sean Cockerham

State House Finance Committee co-chairman Bill Thomas has agreed to settle campaign finance violations with an agreement that includes $4,060 in penalties and mandatory candidate training for him and his wife.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission on Wednesday approved the agreement, which comes nearly a year after the violations from last fall's election. Resolution was slowed by the fact Thomas, like all legislators, has immunity while the Legislature is in session.

Thomas is one of the most influential members of the Alaska House of Representatives. He is the prime architect in the House of the budget that funds Alaska's state agency operations and services.

The case against Thomas, a Republican from Haines, began in October 2010 with a complaint filed against his campaign by Linda Kellen Biegel, a well-known Anchorage blogger. She complained that a series of "thank-you" newspaper ads paid for by Haines businesses in support of Thomas violated Alaska's ban on corporate contributions to campaigns.

Alaska Public Offices Commission staff, while investigating the complaint, also discovered that Thomas carried over too much money from his 2008 campaign to his 2010 re-election effort. All state House candidates are only allowed to carry $5,000 from one campaign to the next and APOC said Thomas transferred $15,291. APOC said the carryover limit is meant to help ensure a level playing field for those who might want to challenge a state legislator in a future election.

"Even though the money was not spent (in the campaign) it may have scared off other potential challengers," said Kenneth Kirk, a member of the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

Former Thomas campaign staffer Gregg Richmond told APOC Tuesday the carryover violation was his fault, and that it happened because he was in shock as his wife was dying of cancer.

Thomas told the commission he believed the case was an effort to discredit him, and "that to capitalize on the grief of an individual here is wrong."

Thomas also told the commission he's the son of a single mother and a Vietnam veteran who has won election with "hometown boy" volunteers. He said he's born and raised in Haines and that the town is proud of his accomplishment of being elected to the state Legislature.

APOC said the illegal "thank-you" ads Haines businesses bought for Thomas were put together by James Studley, who became a deputy treasurer of Thomas' campaign.

Thomas did not have an opponent in the primary and won the November election with 62 percent of the vote against Democrat Robert Beedle.

APOC said Studley solicited the businesses, which then paid for the ads and allowed him to handle all the details. The ads in the Chilkat Valley News ran for 17 consecutive weeks from June 17 through Oct. 10. Studley continued coordinating the ads after being tapped in June as a deputy treasurer for the Thomas campaign, according to APOC, and said he told Thomas what was going on.

"While Rep. Thomas does not remember the details of this discussion, he should have known that the campaign was not in compliance," APOC said.

APOC said Studley wrongly believed that the advertisements were allowed under the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Citizens United ruling allows unlimited independent campaign spending by corporations, so long as the spending is not coordinated with the campaign that it's designed support. But after Studley became a deputy treasurer and told Thomas about the advertising plan, it could no longer be considered an independent expenditure under Citizens United. At that point it broke Alaska's law forbidding corporate contributions to political candidates, according to APOC.

The agreement approved by APOC and Thomas to settle the complaints includes a total of $4,060 in penalties. Thomas or his wife, Joyce, are to pay $1,250 of the total. The rest is to be jointly paid by Thomas, his wife, and Studley. Joyce Thomas was the campaign treasurer.

That includes fines as well as $1,560 to be repaid for the cost of the illegal thank-you ads taken out in the Chilkat Valley News.

Bill and Joyce Thomas also must attend an APOC candidate training in the next year. Studley will also need to undergo training if he's going to participate in any more political campaigns.

Thomas has already forfeited to the state the $10,291 in campaign funds that were wrongly carried over from his 2008 campaign.

Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.


By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News