Alaska's two major U.S. Senate candidates said they had pulled down a pair of political ads referencing a high-profile murder and sexual assault case, following a request from the attorney for the family of the victims.
The attorney, Bryon Collins, also sent a letter over the weekend blaming incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Begich for creating an "emotional storm" for his clients, and raising questions about whether the ads could taint the jury pool in the suspect's upcoming trial.
The dispute began Friday with an initial ad that Begich's campaign launched accusing Republican opponent Dan Sullivan, a former state attorney general, of giving light sentences to sex offenders, including Jerry Active, who is charged with killing a couple and sexually assaulting their toddler granddaughter and an elderly woman in a Mountain View home last year.
Sullivan's campaign quickly produced its own commercial in response, and the back-and-forth erupted by Tuesday into the biggest controversy of the campaign so far.
In a phone interview, Collins said his clients were happy with the commitment from both campaigns to pull the television ads but added, echoing comments in his letter, that his intervention stemmed from the Begich campaign's original commercial.
A spokesperson for Begich, Max Croes, said the campaign had consulted with a member of the victims' family and a local Cambodian community organizer before its ad launched, though he didn't immediately answer a question about whether the campaign had been granted permission.
Croes said Begich's campaign has replaced its original spot with a different commercial.
Begich's original ad featured a retired Anchorage Police Department officer who drove to the Mountain View crime scene, and said Sullivan, as attorney general, let many sex offenders off with light sentences, including Active.
Begich's campaign said Sullivan's name appeared on a flawed plea agreement in 2010 that gave Active less jail time than he deserved for a previous case of sexual abuse -- four years instead of an 8- to 15-year sentence.
The Department of Law has acknowledged Active's sentence was too short but said the flawed agreement stemmed from a report generated in 2009 from a database maintained by the Alaska Department of Public Safety, which omitted Active's previous felony conviction from a 2007 case.
A spokesperson for Sullivan, Mike Anderson, declined to answer questions about the case by phone and asked Alaska Dispatch News to submit questions by email.
In an emailed response, Sullivan's campaign said his name had been typed on the plea agreement, which was signed by another prosecutor. John Skidmore, the director of the attorney general's criminal division, said about 80 percent of the more than 25,000 cases handled by his division each year result in plea agreements.
"We have been open and transparent with the facts, because as the attorney general and the Department of Law have confirmed, the facts are on our side," Anderson wrote in an email, citing an earlier statement from Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty that Begich's original commercial had "no basis in fact."
"Begich should drop this desperate charade and come clean to Alaskans," Anderson said.
Croes said the Begich campaign would make no more references to the Active case, though he added that "we will continue to call on Sullivan to be honest with Alaskans, and discuss his failed record as attorney general."
He noted that the Begich campaign's commitment to remove its original ad from television airwaves, and to stop referencing the Active case, was unchanged from a statement it released Sunday evening, before Collins distributed his letter accusing the campaign of "playing politics" at the expense of the victims' family.
Collins said he sent the letter because the message he took from Begich's Sunday statement was: "We're changing the ad; we're not pulling the ad." The statement said Begich's campaign "is modifying our ad to remove any potential reference to the pending criminal case." Collins said Begich's campaign subsequently assured him that it would be creating a "completely different ad."
Croes added that Begich's ads were off the airwaves faster than Sullivan's, which were still running on television early Monday morning. He also said Sullivan's campaign had provided Collins' sharply worded letter to the conservative news website The Daily Caller, and that it was "unfortunate Dan Sullivan is trying to call more attention to the case."
Sullivan's campaign said it had issued a press release Sunday asking stations to stop running the ads, which was followed up by the campaign's ad buyers, but added that it was the stations' responsibility to pull the spots off the air.
A spokesman didn't acknowledge a question about whether the campaign released the letter to the conservative website but Collins said he had only sent the letter to the two campaigns.
Collins said Tuesday that he was happy his clients are now "out of the limelight." But while the ads referencing the Active case are off the air, a local defense attorney said the renewed publicity had risked tainting the jury pool in Active's case, which is scheduled to start later this month. That echoes a concern from Collins' letter.
"Taking them down helps," said the attorney, John Cashion. But, he added, "It could certainly have a real-world impact on jury selection."
"It's difficult to get a fair and impartial trial in any sexual assault case," he said, adding that a speedy resolution of the case appeared to be in the best interest of both sides. "None of the media's going to help with that."