The state agency in charge of monitoring campaign finance laws in Alaska says backers of a movement to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy from office can accept unlimited campaign contributions and do not have to immediately disclose the source of that money. The same rules apply to any organization formed to oppose the recall.
“In general, it’s wide open," said Tom Lucas, campaign disclosure coordinator for the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
“You can get (money) from labor organizations, businesses, nonprofits, folks out of state — the only limitation is foreign nationals. But that’s the only limitation," Lucas said.
Political campaigns for individual office are subject to strict contribution limits and the requirement that their supporters disclose how much money has been contributed, by whom, and what the money is being used for. Recall campaigns aren’t subject to those limits.
In addition, any advertising done for or against the recall does not have to disclose that it is paid political advertising. The only exception is if the advertising involves someone actively running for office. Dunleavy isn’t up for re-election until 2022.
Disclosure happens only if an actual election campaign begins — something that could be months away — and only if recall supporters decide to use money they raised while gathering signatures before the election. In that case, the recall group would be required to reveal everyone who has contributed money and every expense since the start of the campaign.
If the recall movement stalls short of an election, or if recall backers spend all they raise before then, they don’t have to disclose a thing they’ve done so far. They would be required to disclose only what they raise and spend from the moment the campaign officially begins.
As Lucas said, that’s because the definition of a “contribution” is set in state law, and until the recall petition is certified by the Alaska Division of Elections, it’s as if the political campaign doesn’t yet exist.
“It is not considered a contribution, and if it’s not a contribution, there’s nothing to report,” he said.
Paula DeLaiarro is financial officer for Anchorage’s Ship Creek Group and has served as the treasurer for dozens of political campaigns since her first in 2014. The recall campaign is in her portfolio of clients this year.
“Every single campaign, there’s another new little twist,” she said.
Asked whether the recall campaign would be willing to disclose its top three contributors even without state law, she said, “I don’t think we want to disclose that at this point.”
As she said, those contributors — who would be listed in TV, radio and print ads if this were a normal political campaign — gave their money with the understanding that their names would not be immediately publicized.
Asked if the campaign would be willing to provide information about the amount of money raised and spent, she said, “I don’t think so. We abide by all APOC rules and regulations, but we probably are not going to be putting out any information in advance of any requirement.”
Lucas said the lack of campaign transparency is the result of a law passed in 2010 by the Alaska Legislature. That law said Alaska’s campaign finance disclosure laws began working the moment signature-gathering began for ballot initiatives, but not for recalls or referendum petitions (which are used to overturn existing laws, not establish new ones).
When asked by the Senate Finance Committee in 2010 why the law wasn’t being changed for recalls, a staffer told the Senate Finance Committee, “The notion is that referendums and recalls aren’t as great an issue as statewide ballot measures."
Former Rep. Kyle Johansen, a Republican from Ketchikan, was one of the bill’s lead sponsors.
“It just didn’t come up," he said by phone Monday of the recall issue.
Three years later, a failed referendum against Senate Bill 21, which cut oil taxes in order to encourage production, became the most expensive political battle in state history to that point. (Last year’s Stand for Salmon ballot initiative surpassed it.)
At that time, the Public Offices Commission issued an advisory opinion stating that the organization backing the vote “is not required to report contributions and expenditures which are solely for its signature-gathering efforts.”
A separate opinion stated that the law “contains no requirement to report donations received or money spent to oppose a referendum application (the signature phase).”
Those two opinions still guide Alaska’s campaign finance regulator today, but because the task of gathering signatures for a governor is so much more extensive than it is for a referendum, they have a much greater impact this year than they did six years ago.
Asked whether the law should be changed, Johansen said, “Absolutely. ... It should be in there."
According to figures released Aug. 22, the campaign has collected 36,731 signatures, more than the 28,501 needed for the petition to be considered by the Alaska Division of Elections. The petition hasn’t yet been filed: Backers intend to gather additional signatures through Sept. 2.
The division will examine the petition, checking to see whether each signature is valid. If there are enough valid signatures, the division then examines the legality of the petition and decides whether to certify it, according to a description of events published by the division.
If it is certified, petitioners then must gather 71,252 signatures to call a special election. People who signed the first petition are allowed to sign the second; signatures from the first round do not automatically carry over into the second.
It’s only after that second round, assuming the Division of Elections accepts them, that financial disclosures are required.
DeLaiarro said recall backers will be prepared to reveal their collections and expenses at that time.
“We are accepting money. We are spending money. We are keeping track of money so that when the time comes — because I am assuming that we will have funds left to roll over — that we’ll be reporting at that time,” she said.