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Attorney: Alaska's political contribution limits founded on shaky ground

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 28, 2016

A past leader of campaign finance reform in Alaska said Thursday he relied on average incomes and nationwide contributions to set the $500 individual candidate contribution limit that has long been a mainstay of Alaska politics, addressing a central issue in a lawsuit against the state seeking to raise that limit and other restrictions.

But an opponent of the limits derived by reformer Michael Frank suggested Frank's method in 1995 was so lacking in objective research, he might as well have stuck his finger in the wind.

Frank testified Thursday in an Anchorage federal court, the fourth day of the campaign finance trial before U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess. The civil trial, being heard without a jury, was brought by a Republican Party district committee and three supporters of Republican candidates. They say Alaska's campaign finance laws, including the $500 annual limit a person can give to a candidate, are too restrictive and violate the U.S. Constitution's free-speech rights. Supporters of the restrictions, including the defendant in the case — the Alaska Public Offices Commission — say the limits are preventive measures against corruption.

Kevin Clarkson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said when Frank proposed the $500 limit in a ballot initiative two decades ago, he lacked objective facts showing why it reduces risks of corruption more than a higher limit.

In Clarkson's view, how Frank chose that number is pivotal to the lawsuit. He argued the state's strict limits trigger "danger signs" spelled out in a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down tight limits in Vermont, because Alaska's limits are now among the lowest in the nation and fall well below other limits the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld.

The state argues the courts don't require a "perfect" limit, but a reasonable amount that allows enough contributions for an effective campaigns while reducing the potential for corruption or the appearance of corruption.

"There's no magic number," said state attorney Margaret Paton-Walsh. "Different people are corrupted by different amounts, and some people are never corrupted at all."

Frank, now 69 and a retired attorney living in Anchorage, launched the Campaign Finance Reform Now initiative after a finance-reform attempt in the Legislature failed to gain steam, and "shady" behavior by elected officials — reflected in a barrage of headlines at the time — showed no sign of letting up.

Frank said he worked with the sponsor of the bill, former Anchorage Democratic Rep. David Finkelstein, to come up with appropriate limits. The initiative attracted public support and legislative traction, especially after then-Gov. Tony Knowles and other governors publicly voiced their support.

It sparked lawmakers to launch their own effort, and in 1996, they adopted reform measures by a wide margin that were similar enough under state law to replace the initiative.

The new law kept the $500 limit on individual contributions in place, and retained other restrictions in the initiative, including one stopping candidates from using campaign funds for personal use, something that looked a lot like a bribe.

"They could pay off their mortgage if they wanted to," said Frank.

That limit became the standard.

When the Legislature cranked it up to $1,000 in 2003, restoring the limit that had been in place from 1974 to 1996, the public in 2006 reversed it back to $500 with a second initiative that sailed into law with a 3-to-1 margin. The vote came amid voter outrage over then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, whose missteps in office included secret negotiations with the state's powerful oil producers, BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, over a North Slope gas pipeline deal.

Frank on Thursday said he wasn't surprised to be back in court two decades later. The limits were challenged twice not long after they were enacted, surviving a lawsuit at the state level brought by the Alaska Civil Liberties Union and another at the federal level brought by Republicans.

"Obviously there are folks out there, at least in the Republican establishment and the Legislature, who want higher limits," he said.

In a discussion with a reporter, Frank said he didn't have objective data in the mid-1990s to show that a $500 limit was better at reducing the risk of corruption than a higher limit. He said such information wasn't available.

Under cross-examination Thursday by Clarkson, Frank said he consulted a key 1976 Supreme Court case to make sure the limit would clear constitutional concerns. He also based his decision on average incomes in Alaska in the mid-1990s and the national average for campaign contributions — about $200. He doubled that amount and added $100.

He wanted to make sure candidates could collect enough money to run effective campaigns, but he didn't want an amount so large it would create the appearance of corruption, an important consideration weighed by the courts out of fear public apathy could stifle democratic input.

But Clarkson pointed that out in 1990, Frank contributed the value of his annual Permanent Fund dividend check to Knowles when Knowles was running for governor. It was worth almost $1,000, the legal cap at the time. Since that's above the $500 limit, didn't that make Frank and Knowles corrupt, Clarkson asked.

Frank said it did not. But Frank, a state attorney at the time, said he was concerned some might view it as having the potential for corruption, since they might think he was giving the money to Knowles to protect his job.

In fact, Frank said, he wasn't. Frank said he was only interested in "good government" from Knowles.

From the bench, Burgess has also probed the question of what's an appropriate amount, asking an expert witness for the state on Wednesday if there was a study that establishes why the $500 limit is "ideal."

Gerald McBeath, perhaps the state's leading historian of Alaska politics, said he had not intensively studied that question.