Alaska campaign watchdog keeps bark, loses most of its remaining teeth

While the Alaska Public Offices Commission has had more near-death experiences than Wile E. Coyote, it will emerge from this latest as "a bark without a dog," to borrow a phrase from Mike Doogan.

Instead of silencing the campaign watchdog group, the Legislature would rather extract more of its remaining teeth. It's already a hollow shell, with just enough of a false front to the fool the spectators. Seven of its 14 positions are vacant after a 40 percent budget cut last year.

The Legislature has not sliced its own budget — it is spending more on itself this year than last year — but the independent agency that is supposed to enforce campaign laws and provide vital information to the public has seen the biggest cuts in state government. Under the plan advancing in Juneau, APOC will be down by nearly 60 percent from two years ago.

In attempting to justify a proposed $200,000 budget decrease, which would set the APOC budget at $591,000, Wasilla Rep. Lynn Gattis provided this head-scratcher late Thursday: "They have the same amount of work that they've had versus increased work. And they had the same level of work even after we had done the reductions."

Working to overturn that cut, Anchorage Rep. Andy Josephson argued without success to the state House that the ever-shrinking APOC is unable to enforce campaign finance laws and it is unfair to candidates and the public.

"It's as if we're saying to this agency, 'We don't want you to do your job and we're going to make it sort of impossible,'" he said.

Thirty years ago, APOC had its budget slashed to $613,500. Adjusting for inflation, that would be about $1.3 million today. In other words, the proposed 2017 budget is less than half of what it was during the economic collapse of the 1980s.


Part of the problem is that many elected officials believe APOC is a nuisance agency that exists solely to make their lives miserable with indecipherable regulations. Defenders of the agency are often those outside of government who rely on the information it collects. But no candidate misses a chance to use APOC reports against an opponent. The work the agency does is crucial to news coverage and to public understanding of certain elements of state politics.

In recent years, Paul Dauphinais, executive director of the agency, has come is for heavy criticism from people with varying political views.

In a 2015 hearing, Sen. Lesil McGuire complained about what she said was an unfair APOC process that had been directed her way. She said under former directors the agency took the approach that "lawmakers were good people, they were dedicated to public service," but that is no longer the case.

If there are real concerns about the agency's direction, regulations or the executive director's approach, then legislators should hold a public hearing with the five-member commission and get the details out in the open. It is in everyone's interest to have disclosure laws that are easier to understand and follow.

More often than not, the state response to the perpetual irritation with APOC since 1974 has been to try to minimize its effectiveness. The agency came into existence by legislative action after the Watergate scandal, when a voter initiative to create a stronger campaign watchdog group was headed for easy passage.

It has attracted bipartisan opposition over the years, but Republicans have tended to find it more objectionable. State government has usually given the agency a lot less money than it needs to enforce the laws, while complaining APOC does not do enough to enforce the laws.

The last serious attempt to kill it was in 2003 when former Gov. Frank Murkowski said it was to slow to act on complaints and "has become a vehicle which focuses nearly all media attention on allegations of misconduct and not on the factual reporting of contributions."

It enjoyed a temporary resurgence after the Veco Corp. scandal and the FBI raids on legislative offices.

The co-chairman of the House Finance Committee in 2007, Rep. Kevin Meyer, argued at the time APOC needed more resources. "I just think that with everything that's happened down in Juneau, I think they could catch things in the early stage before they progress or mature into a federal offense," said Meyer, now the president of the Senate.

As time passed and the Veco scandal faded from memory, the political desire to "catch things in the early stage" vanished. A move for a $200,000 cut is also popular in the Senate.

In a report to the House Finance Committee in February, Gattis defended the proposed APOC reduction, saying the agency "has successfully been able to continue to produce a work output at a comparable level to prior years."

She apparently did not read a report by APOC director Dauphinais that contradicts the success claim in devastating detail.

He said the agency receives nearly 8,000 documents each year dealing with candidates, lobbyists and campaign groups. It cannot review all of them in the manner required by law. It is hard-pressed to deal with complaints, provide training about the intricacies of campaign laws and respond to the public.

The commission lists "direct service to the public" as its top priority, Dauphinais said, and as "budget cuts continue to erode the agency's finances, the ability to meet this requirement will decline."

In its biennial report, for 2014-2015, APOC said while the Legislature said it wanted the agency to become more self-supporting last year, it did not allow the agency to raise or institute new fees. Rejecting the $200,000 cut and providing the authority for new and higher fees are good places to start this year.

Dermot Cole lives in Fairbanks and is a longtime Alaska journalist and author. The views in this column are his and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.