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Prominent lawmaker doesn't hew line in case to loosen state's contribution limits

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 25, 2016

A state senator appearing as a witness for supporters of Republican candidates who are suing the state to loosen campaign finance limits provided testimony on Monday that contradicted one of the plaintiff's key arguments.

Appearing in Anchorage on a break from legislative duties in Juneau, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he supports the state's current limits on what candidates can accept from nonresidents, saying he believes elections should be about local fundraising efforts. But he also supported another aspect of the case, saying the limits on in-state contributions are much too low.

Coghill's view on nonresident contributions runs counter to one of the four counts in the lawsuit brought by David Thompson, Aaron Downing, Jim Crawford and Alaska Republican Party District 18. The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in November.

Those individuals and other witnesses for the plaintiffs testified Monday, launching the trial before U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess after attorneys made their opening arguments.

The plaintiffs argue that four types of contribution limits in Alaska law need to be struck down, including the $3,000 annual limit a candidate in a state House race can accept from a nonresident.

Saying the contribution limits violate free speech and other constitutional rights, the plaintiffs are also challenging the $500 annual limit that individual donors can give candidates and groups that aren't political parties. The limit was set by voters in a 2006 ballot measure.

The trial is expected to last more than a week, with current and former politicians, political consultants and campaign watchdogs scheduled to appear as witnesses. A key question in the case is whether the state's limits — among the strictest in the nation — allow candidates to run effective campaigns while also reducing the chances that dishonest donors will extract favors for their contributions.

A victory for the plaintiffs could reshape fundraising efforts in this year's legislative elections, allowing donors to give more to candidates they support. Kevin Clarkson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, has argued that if the limits are removed, Burgess or the Legislature could set new limits. Clarkson said he'd support a range between $1,000 and $2,700, the individual limit for federal races. But there's no guarantee that would happen, or happen before this year's elections.

Though he called the nonresident contribution limits reasonable, Coghill agreed with the plaintiffs in other key areas, including supporting a raise in individual annual limits.

He recommended taking it to $1,000, a level that had previously existed in state history. He said the limits hurt challengers more than incumbents like himself, who have established name recognition, fundraising lists and other advantages.

Coghill said it's very expensive to run campaigns in Alaska, particularly in huge rural districts. Costs for key campaign expenses such as gasoline have increased over the years while the $500 limit has been in place for years.

State attorney Margaret Paton-Walsh said in her opening remarks that the right amount is what the voters have decided.

"Alaskans have voted differently," she said.

As far as the nonresident limit goes, Coghill seemed to share a key view of the state's attorneys: That it's important to protect Alaska politics against the influence of outside interests.

Expressing his concern for that limit was plaintiff David Thompson, a Wisconsin resident and former teacher, who appeared on the witness stand Monday.

He had tried to contribute $100 to his brother in law, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, in 2015, after Keller had asked for his help. But the check Thompson wrote in October had to be returned because Keller had already received the maximum he could accept under the state's nonresident limit.

"I thought it was pretty restrictive and it held up my ability to speak out," said Thompson, 70, in a break from the trial.

Keller suggested that his brother-in-law get a lawyer. Thompson said he was advised to hire Clarkson, who has often represented conservative causes.

Clarkson told a reporter that Alaskans' feelings about keeping contributions local are less important in the case than the free-speech rights of other U.S. citizens.

"Alaskans may like the idea of Alaska politics for Alaskans, but the courts have said otherwise" when it comes to contributions, Clarkson said.

Coghill also spoke about the potentially corrupting influence of contributions, saying a lobbyist had asked once asked him for his support before a crucial vote.

The lobbyist stopped him in the hallway and said something like, "We gave to you and now we need your help."

Coghill told a reporter outside the courtroom on Monday that the incident happened in about 2000. Coghill wouldn't name the lobbyist, but said he bristled and loudly rejected the offer for others in the hallway to hear.

"It's true some people feel they can put you under pressure because they donated," Coghill said. "It didn't work with me and it doesn't work with most people."

He also agreed with the plaintiffs in another key area, saying the specific contribution limit is less important than the character of the candidate and the donor.

That was highlighted in Coghill's view of the federal corruption probe that in 2006 that resulted in guilty pleas from former Veco Corp. executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith, who had bribed state legislators to win support for a new oil-tax system. Coghill wasn't one of them.

Responding to questions from Paton-Walsh, Coghill said he wasn't shocked at what happened, because he knew by "instinct" that Allen and Smith were "bad actors." He said he didn't like them.

During his testimony, Coghill also said that period was a "sobering" time for the Legislature, when the actions "of a few less-than-noble people gave us all a black eye."

That series of events, more than a specific contribution limit, led to the tone in Juneau changing in 2007.

"It was bad actors getting caught by the FBI," he said.

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