The industry-led group fighting the Yes for Salmon ballot initiative told Alaska campaign regulators in a hearing Tuesday that their opponent is benefiting from more "dark money" than it originally thought.
Also, the initiative campaign director, Ryan Schryver, said in a hearing that his paychecks come from the Washington, D.C.-based New Venture Fund. But Schryver said he reports to an Alaska organization, SalmonState, that receives financial assistance from New Venture.
Stand for Alaska-Vote No on One brought the complaint last week. The group asserts that Yes for Salmon-Vote Yes on One, as well as Stand for Salmon, and The Alaska Center, have violated multiple disclosure laws.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission said it will issue a ruling next week, on Wednesday.
Members of the pro-initiative groups maintained during the hearing they have worked closely with APOC staff to avoid any reporting errors.
"We value transparency," Schryver said. "We've worked every step of way to do this above board."
The initiative, set to be decided by voters Nov. 6, seeks to increase salmon and other fish protections in Alaska.
A chunk of Tuesday's hearing focused on New Venture, a nonprofit charitable group. The organization is not specifically mentioned in the complaint, but is part of the "dark money" the complaint alleges, said attorney Matt Singer, representing Stand for Alaska.
Holly Wells, an attorney representing groups on the Yes for Salmon side, said New Venture complies with APOC requirements.
"So they are transparent," she said.
New Venture is the second-largest source of the roughly $1 million in contributions to Yes for Salmon, providing more than $200,000, almost entirely in non-monetary contributions such as staff time.
Commissioners sought to understand what the group does, and whether its contribution is transparent to voters.
Schryver said New Venture is a "fiscal sponsor" to SalmonState, providing financial support and administrative services such as payroll.
Schryver said for practical purposes he's an employee of SalmonState, reporting to SalmonState director Tim Bristol, a Homer resident.
New Venture helps launch budding social and environmental efforts, such as SalmonState, said Lee Bodner, its president, in an email to Anchorage Daily News. Projects operate independently, so organizers can determine the best strategy to achieve goals, he said.
Tim Dietz, an APOC commissioner, asked at the hearing how the average Alaskan voter can know who is supporting the campaign, if much of the contribution is from New Venture.
Schryver replied: "My question would be, 'How does the average voter know where the money is coming from with BP or ConocoPhillips or any of the groups working to fund the other side?' "
"I'm the one asking the questions here," Dietz said. "It's obvious they get the money from oil they get out of the ground."
Oil and mining companies have provided the bulk of funding for Stand for Alaska, more than $10 million.
Schryver told Dietz he did not know how every penny could be traced back to its origin.
Schryver said SalmonState has other employees assisting with the campaign, with others working on other projects to protect fish. New Venture's payment for employees who assist with the initiative shows up as a contribution to the campaign.
SalmonState was involuntarily dissolved as a nonprofit corporation by the state in March.
Singer said after the hearing SalmonState is "not a real organization. They call themselves SalmonState, but are just a project of New Venture Fund."
Bristol said in an interview that after forming SalmonState as a nonprofit, he learned it didn't in fact need to be registered as one. The goal is to become completely independent in the future, he said.
"The bottom line is all the ideas and strategies and tactics, everything we work on, all the issues and programs, are born here in Alaska," Bristol said.
He and Schryver said only Alaskans are working on the ballot initiative.
The Alaska Center, meanwhile, has reported contributions of about $500,000 to the campaign, largely in non-monetary services, such as for door-knocking or phone calls, according to the complaint.
Singer said in the hearing he thought he had identified the source of about half of that contribution.
But based on information at the hearing provided by Meghan Cavanaugh, political and field director for The Alaska Center, he said he's not sure of the "true source" of the entirety of that contribution, either.
"It's a mystery," Singer said.
Cavanaugh said the source of that contribution is The Alaska Center's general fund. She said she's fully disclosed what's required by APOC, but would support efforts for broader disclosure.
"My feedback to APOC would be (the required) contribution form could be more comprehensive," she said.
Schryver said his side may have made a misstep in one small area — the "paid-for-by" identifiers at the end of campaign materials.
"If there's not a 'paid-for-by' on it, and we didn't catch it, apologies, we'll work to correct it," he said.