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Politics

Report: Governor’s advertising campaign was used to collect Alaskans' info

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: September 24
  • Published September 24

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks in March 2020 in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The office of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy spent thousands of dollars on an advertising campaign last year that urged Alaskans to sign petitions for a larger Permanent Fund dividend, to cap state spending and repeal criminal justice reform, but those petitions never existed, an ethics investigator has concluded.

Instead, the ad campaign was used to collect Alaskans' names and contact information for the governor’s office, wrote attorney John Tiemessen.

Tiemessen worked under contract for the State Personnel Board, which investigates ethics complaints against the executive branch. His report, dated Sept. 10, concluded an investigation that began in July 2019.

One ad said, “Lawmakers are once again trying to take your PFD. Sign Governor Dunleavy’s petition to support a full PFD.”

At the time, legislators were debating the size of the 2019 Permanent Fund dividend. Dunleavy had proposed a dividend of about $4,000; legislators set it at $1,606.

“On initial review, these ads appear to communicate the governor’s policy and allow individuals an opportunity to petition their government and offer their own opinions,” Tiemessen wrote. “However, the governor’s attorney’s correspondence with independent counsel indicates that these ‘petitions’ were only used to gather constituent information and were not used to directly petition the Legislature or to advocate for the subject policies in any manner.”

“It’s entirely possible that if the petitions had existed that would have been problematic,” he said by phone.

In that hypothetical case, the administration could have been using state money for “partisan political purposes,” something forbidden by law. As long as the state was only collecting personal information — and not sharing that information with anyone — those ads were legal, he concluded.

Tiemessen’s 22-page report was first reported Wednesday by Alaska Public Media, which obtained it through a public records request.

The governor’s office referred questions about the ads to Dunleavy attorney Brewster Jamieson, who said that all petitioners collect information.

“I don’t see how anyone is harmed or fooled or aggrieved by that process,” he said.

Jamieson said Alaskans were petitioning the governor, not lawmakers, and that each Facebook click was delivered to the administration.

“It’s submitted directly to the governor’s office,” he said.

Even though the governor’s office never presented the names of supporters to lawmakers in a traditional written petition, Jamieson speculated that the governor’s office could have cited the number of supporters when talking to individual legislators.

Other ads paid for by the governor’s office did send state residents' complaints to legislators. Those, labeled “contact your representative” ads by Tiemessen, provided a form that sent emails to several lawmakers when filled out.

A staffer for Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, sent a test message using the unique title “Full PFD MEOW.”

That email ended up in the inboxes of the House majority leader, the two co-chairs of the House Finance Committee, and two other Democratic lawmakers, all opponents of the governor’s PFD approach.

Neither the petition-related ads nor the contact-your-legislator ads were illegal, Tiemessen concluded, but other ads did violate state law, he said. Dunleavy agreed earlier this month to pay $2,800 to settle the ethics complaint that spawned Tiemessen’s investigation.

According to the report, a Seldovia woman filed the complaint in July 2019, citing Facebook ads being run by the governor’s office. The three-member Alaska Personnel Board appointed Tiemessen as independent counsel to investigate.

In addition to the Facebook ads soliciting petition signatures, the governor’s office commissioned online and mailed ads instructing voters to thank lawmakers who supported his position on state spending.

Rep. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, were among the beneficiaries of those ads, and Tiemessen concluded that because they had already signed letters of intent for the 2020 election, the ads at least partially had a partisan political purpose and violated state law. (Until the publication of Tiemessen’s report, the two lawmakers had been identified as Revak and Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage.)

The governor and his attorney dispute Tiemessen’s conclusions, saying that the governor was unaware of the ads and therefore should not be liable.

Fields questioned the legality of the governor’s advertising campaign last year. One of the ads featured Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage. How, Fields asked, could a governor be unaware of ads targeting a Senate president from his own party?

“The notion that a governor would be unaware of that is preposterous,” he said.

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