Campaign finance violations prompt election watchdog to change rules

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- In separate decisions, the Alaska Public Offices Commission found that arch-rivals Alaska Conservation Voters and the state Republican Party violated campaign laws governing how political parties and some groups can advertise or circulate campaign materials to help or hinder candidates.

The commission then asked its staff to draft new regulations to better define what an ''independent expenditure'' is and who pays the price when the standard is violated.

The ruling against the Republicans involved a complaint about radio ads in Anchorage that ran just before last year's city election. It told listeners that Anchorage Conservation Voters, or ACV, was ''a liberal, Outside-funded, environmental group.'' The ad named two Anchorage Assembly candidates and a School Board candidate it said ACV was supporting.

The ad concluded, ''You have to wonder -- aren't these candidates really liberal environmentalist(s)? Why else would ACV back them? Please keep this in mind when you vote Tuesday, April 3.''

Under state law the party is allowed to spend unlimited amounts to run such ads for or against candidates, as long as it doesn't cooperate or consult with a candidate or candidate's campaign in doing so. But it has to include a notice that the ad isn't authorized or paid for by the campaign. The Republican Party didn't do that.

Party chairman Randy Ruedrich said the party didn't include the notice because the ads were only informational. They weren't intended to hurt the candidates named as ACV-supported or help their opponents, he said.

''Our advertisement had nothing to do with advocating votes for anyone,'' he said.

But John Dapcevich, a Democratic commissioner from Juneau, said it seemed clear the ads were intended to sway votes away from the three named candidates. ''It's just common sense,'' he said.

The party could legally run the ads as ''independent expenditures,'' but the commission fined the Republicans $250 for failing to include the independent expenditure notice.

Alaska Conservation Voters also ran afoul of a legal issue.

In September 2000, ACV invited six state Senate or House candidates to its office to pick up campaign contribution checks, and asked to take their photographs while they were there. Later, the photographs were used on postcards produced and mailed by the ACV in support of their campaigns. ACV, saying it had no contact with the candidates or campaigns in producing the ads, considered them legal ''independent expenditures.''

Under the state's campaign finance law, an ''independent expenditure'' is one made without directly or indirectly consulting or cooperating with the candidate or campaign, and without their prior consent.

The Republican Party filed a complaint about the postcards, claiming that the candidates had cooperated with ACV when they allowed their pictures to be taken.

ACV's attorney, Tom Amodio, and the APOC's own staff investigators disagreed. They said ''cooperation and consultation,'' within the law's meaning, had to involve something beyond simply having a picture taken.

''This was a truly independent expenditure,'' Amodio told the Anchorage Daily News. ''We didn't even know what we were going to do with (the photos)'' when they were taken.

But Dapcevich said the candidates should have realized that ACV might use the pictures to help their campaigns. ''Why else would you take the photo?'' he asked.

The commission voted 3-1 to find that ACV had violated the law, even if it was unintentional.

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