Alaska News

Parade of politicians expected to appear at trial over Alaska campaign donation limits

A parade of political operatives, campaign watchdogs and current and former politicians are on deck to take the witness stand starting Monday in a constitutional challenge brought by Republican supporters who seek to loosen the state's campaign finance laws.

A key issue in the trial is whether campaign contributions have a corrupting effect on politics. The defendants in the case -- the Alaska Public Offices Commission -- say they can, and need to be tightly controlled.

But the plaintiffs who brought the suit, a Republican Party affiliate and three individual donors, say contribution limits improperly restrict honest donors from expressing their political views by giving money to candidates. They say candidates can avoid corruption by refusing contributions that come with strings, as one witness will attest he did when running for the Anchorage Assembly.

That would be former Anchorage Assembly member Bob Bell, who is expected to discuss his refusal in 1996 to accept fundraising help from executives with former oil field contractor Veco Corp. who, in return, sought Bell's support for a major project in Anchorage. Bell is expected to appear as a witness for both sides, and he may not discuss that topic until the trial's second week.

Appearing for the plaintiffs, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, is scheduled to discuss the challenges that contribution limits pose to candidates trying to oust incumbents like himself.

For the defendants, Edwin Bender, executive director of followthemoney.org, a website tracking campaign donors and lobbyists nationwide, is expected to testify that candidates can mount competitive campaigns within the state's current contribution limits.

Those and other well-known figures, perhaps even former Gov. Tony Knowles, are set to appear as witnesses before U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess in the lawsuit against the state, brought in November by three supporters of Republican candidates and Alaska Republican Party District 18.

The plaintiffs -- their arguments partially rooted in the controversial 2010 Citizens United decision at the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down limits on corporate and union spending -- want Burgess to invalidate annual limits on contributions from political parties and nonresidents.

They also want him to eliminate the $500 annual limit that individuals can make to candidates and to groups other than political parties, a limit that Alaskans lowered from $1,000 in a landslide vote in 2006.

Opposing arguments

Kevin Clarkson, attorney for the plaintiffs, has argued that his clients were discriminated against when they attempted to support candidates in 2015.

The plaintiffs are:

• Aaron Downing, a Mat-Su resident, wanted to give more than $500 to a Republican House candidate and a Matanuska-Susitna Borough mayoral candidate, but state law didn't allow it.

• Jim Crawford, an Anchorage resident, wanted to give more than $500 to the Alaska Miners Association's political action committee, but state law didn't allow it.

• Wisconsin resident David Thompson, who was unable to donate to his brother-in-law, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, because Keller had already received the maximum $3,000 he was legally allowed to get from out-of-state residents.

• Republican District 18, which says it couldn't donate to Anchorage mayoral candidate Amy Demboski's campaign in 2015 because she had already raised the maximum of $5,000 from other GOP groups.

They argue that a donation is an expression of support for a candidate and their views, and that contribution limits therefore restrict free-speech protections spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. They add that the contribution limits also restrict the constitutional rights of candidates, limiting ability to share their ideas with others.

State attorneys argue that the limits in place strike a balance: Allowing candidates to mount effective campaigns while helping prevent corruption and even the appearance of corruption.

The lawsuit doesn't propose alternative limits for Alaska, so if the plaintiffs win individuals could give unlimited amounts to candidates, said Laura Fox, an assistant attorney general arguing the case.

"The more one person can contribute to a candidate, the more potential there is for corruption or even the appearance of corruption and an eroding of public confidence," she said.

But Clarkson said the plaintiffs can support reasonable contribution limits, something the Legislature or the courts could determine if the existing limits are invalidated.

"My view has always been a constitutional limit is between $1,000 and $2,700 (instead of $500)," Clarkson said. "The $1,000 limit was in place in Alaska for 26 years anyway and $2,700 is the federal limit."

A parade of witnesses

At least 20 witnesses may appear in the case, scheduled to last more than a week.

Among the topics up for discussion will be the mother of all political scandals in Alaska, the federal corruption probe that in 2007 resulted in guilty pleas from former Veco executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith, who had bribed state legislators to win support for a new oil tax system.

The names of Allen and Smith may come up more than once. Bell, an Assembly member in the 1990s, plans to discuss the pair's attempt to win his support for a private prison that Veco and other contractors wanted to build in South Anchorage, after they offered to host a campaign fundraiser for him, Clarkson said.

Bell refused the offer, Clarkson said, showing that the state's laws against bribery worked.

Bender and rising political consultant John-Henry Heckendorn, who earlier this month helped four Anchorage Assembly candidates win seats, are expected to provide testimony supporting the state's view that current campaign limits allow candidates to run effective campaigns.

For the plaintiffs, Coghill is expected to attest that the contribution limits hinder challengers seeking to defeat incumbents. His opponents need money to introduce themselves and their ideas to voters, while Coghill is a known entity who isn't hurt by the limits, said Clarkson.

The state recently won two pretrial disputes in the case.

The plaintiffs wanted Burgess to strike down the $3,000 nonresident limit that prevented Thompson from donating money to Keller. Burgess denied that request.

Burgess also granted a request from the state to allow Clarkson to challenge only the four, specific contribution limits affecting the plaintiffs. Still, a victory for the plaintiffs could set a precedent that opens the door for additional challenges to other contribution limits.

"It just means there are less bits and pieces of the law for us to defend," Fox said.

Correction: This article originally stated Bob Bell would appear as a witness twice during the trial. He will appear once, as a witness for both sides.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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