JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker's office is scrutinizing payments to political consultant Art Hackney, who appeared from his billing statements to have charged the state for meetings that never occurred.
Among the possible phantom meetings was an Oct. 13 session with Walker himself.
Other questions about Hackney's invoices have emerged based on interviews with people who Hackney claimed to have met with. A report by Anchorage TV station KTUU also detailed discrepancies in the accounts of a meeting between Hackney and Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff.
Walker's office hired Hackney, a longtime Republican political consultant, in September at a $200 hourly rate.
Among his tasks was to build support among Republicans for Walker's budget plan, which is aimed at closing a $3.8 billion deficit. Walker, a Republican-turned-independent who unseated an incumbent Republican governor, Sean Parnell, has faced political opposition from Parnell's former legislative allies.
Hackney's invoices include charges for dozens of meetings with lobbyists, business owners and key political figures. But several disputed the details, and one said he never met with Hackney.
"I don't recall having a meeting with Art at all," said Mike Dubke, another Republican political consultant, based in Virginia.
Hackney charged Walker's office for a three-hour meeting with Dubke's political consulting firm, Black Rock Group, that Hackney said occurred Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving. Black Rock Group is working for a coalition led by GCI president Ron Duncan that's pushing lawmakers to use some of the Permanent Fund's earnings to help pay for government services — one component of Walker's plan.
A spokeswoman for Walker, Katie Marquette, said in an email late Friday that the governor's office has already paid two of the three invoices submitted by Hackney, who earned a total of $32,550 in 2015 from his work for Walker.
"All three invoices are currently under review and any necessary adjustments will be made," Marquette said.
In a phone interview Friday, Hackney acknowledged it was "entirely possible" that he made unintentional mistakes when he drafted the invoices. But he maintained that he worked far more than the number of hours for which he billed — and he added that denials about the meetings likely came from people who wanted to avoid being associated with Walker.
"There's people that wouldn't even want to admit they talked to Art Hackney," Hackney said. He added: "My wife would say I didn't bill for 20 percent of the people I talked to, because I've been obsessing about it."
Hackney is a veteran Republican consultant and ad-maker whose office in Anchorage's Spenard neighborhood is bedecked with awards celebrating his work. He's worked with Rep. Don Young, financier and Pebble mine opponent Bob Gillam and former Sen. Ted Stevens.
Walker, in a phone interview Friday, said Hackney was hired because he is "plugged into a different network than we are, and we thought we needed to broaden our message."
"He certainly broadens that on the Republican side," Walker said.
Hackney described his role as trying to "correct misperceptions" about Walker's budget plan so that it could get a fair debate in public. To that end, he billed Walker's office for work that included:
• Fifteen talks or meetings, including a lunch lasting more than two hours, with Ashley Reed, an Anchorage-based lobbyist and power broker whose clients include GCI and the coalition spearheaded by its president. Reed, in a phone interview Friday, said he didn't recall having that many formal meetings with Hackney, though he added that "it's not unusual for me and Art to exchange phone calls more than once a day."
• More than a dozen talks or meetings with Jack Ferguson, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist who was also hired by Walker's office to work on the fiscal plan. Ferguson said in a phone interview that the invoices sounded plausible. "Oh yeah," he said. "I talk with Art all the time — we were trying to put together suggestions for the governor."
• A meeting lasting two hours and 15 minutes with Ross Bieling, a South Anchorage Republican candidate for the state Legislature who has paid Hackney for campaign work. Bieling said in a phone interview that he's met with Hackney numerous times, "two, three hours at a time." "I've talked to him about the fiscal issues of the state of Alaska," said Bieling, a fiscal conservative. "How could I run for public office, on the issues that I'm running on, and not have those conversations?"
• Eight meetings or talks with Gillam, a wealthy investor who founded an Anchorage financial firm and who worked with Hackney on an anti-Pebble mine campaign. Gillam, in a phone interview Friday, said he "may have met with Art a couple of times, face to face, in the last few months," and talked with Hackney by phone. "I don't recall," Gillam said. "It's like, how many times do you speak to your best friend?"
• A 2 1/2-hour meeting with Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff. Rogoff, in a phone interview Friday, acknowledged that the meeting occurred but had no recollection of discussing Walker's budget plan. She said her discussion with Hackney was about another project he's working on: planning a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Alaska's purchase. Rogoff couldn't recall the duration of the meeting, "because I was not wearing a stopwatch," but she said she thought it was less than an hour.
Asked about Rogoff's characterization of the meeting, Hackney said he didn't always begin his discussions by focusing on Walker's fiscal plan.
"You meet with them on one pretext and then you bring up what they've heard, what they understand and then you try to correct misperceptions," he said. In the meeting with Rogoff, Hackney said he began by talking about the anniversary celebration before changing the subject to the fiscal plan and rumors circulated by Republicans about Rogoff's role in developing it.
"I wanted to ask her about it so that I could go back and say, 'I've talked to Alice,'" Hackney said. "That's what this business is about — you look for anywhere you can see where misperceptions lie, and to correct them."
Walker, in the phone interview, said he wasn't intimately involved with the details of Hackney's work since the consultant didn't report directly to him — Whitaker is the project manager listed on Hackney's contract.
"He gives his input to us," Walker said. "And who he talks to in doing that, I don't know."