An expert witness and preeminent historian of Alaska politics testified Wednesday about why Alaskans are wary of corruption and political meddling from Outsiders, a view that laid the groundwork for the argument that Alaska's current campaign contribution limits are appropriate.
Gerald McBeath's testimony came as the state builds its defense to a constitutional challenge before U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess in a lawsuit that seeks to strike down political contribution limits in Alaska, including the $500 annual cap that individual donors can give to candidates, an amount Alaska voters overwhelmingly approved in 2006.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been unraveling some contribution restrictions since the Citizens United case in 2010, but limits remain. Supporters of campaign contribution limits say they reduce the threat and appearance of corruption, while opponents say they violate the free speech of donors.
McBeath, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, cited the state's history of scandals, including the Veco Corp. and private prison scandal that led to convictions of 10 percent of the Alaska Legislature and two Veco executives starting in 2007, and attempts by Outside corporations to influence state politics.
McBeath asserted Alaska is one of the states most vulnerable to corruption and Outside political influence.
An author of a book that examined the state's dependence on the oil industry as well as other works, McBeath said Alaska's particular vulnerability stems from the state government's heavy reliance on revenues from the oil industry, a political system that permits just 10 senators in the 20-member Alaska Senate to block legislation, and a remote, small population in a state where independent watchdog groups have minimal oversight.
The need for Outside capital and businesses to develop state resources also contribute, and paltry "legislative salaries can lead to temptation," McBeath said.
A study he and others did of campaigns between 1996 and 2006 found Veco, a prominent oil field services company in Alaska until its breakdown amid a federal corruption probe, was regularly the single largest contributor to campaigns and elections, McBeath said.
Anchorage attorney Kevin Clarkson, arguing for the plaintiffs — an Alaska Republican Party district committee and three people who say their free-speech rights were violated by the contribution caps — blasted McBeath's concept of Alaska's vulnerability to corruption as extremely vague.
Clarkson pointed to Texas and North Dakota, states where the oil industry also plays a prominent role, where candidates can collect unlimited campaign contributions from people, parties and PACs. He argued those states don't have "corruption running amok" despite looser laws.
Under cross-examination from Clarkson, McBeath said he could not point to states where the risk of corruption is higher than in Alaska because they have less restrictive contribution limits.
Following questioning from Burgess and later Clarkson about a key topic in the case — what is the appropriate contribution limit in Alaska — McBeath said the $500 cap on individual contribution limits, which also includes contributions to groups that aren't political parties, is important because a skeptical public has said so.
The limit is also important because it reduces the temptation an elected official will take an action in exchange for cash or gifts — essentially quid-pro-quo corruption.
"What someone might do for $1,000 or $5,000, that person wouldn't do for $500," McBeath said.
Clarkson has argued the $500 limit Alaska isn't a "magic number" that limits corruption or even the appearance of it. Instead, he argues it was chosen with little consideration for important factors, including the risk of quid-pro-quo corruption.
"The contribution limit was $1,000 for 26 years in Alaska, so why is $1,000 corrupt?" Clarkson said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing