Aug. 19, 2002 Anchorage Daily News on disclosure of contributions to political parties

Posted: Monday, August 26, 2002

Ever since a federal judge legalized unlimited soft money donations to Alaska political parties, they have merrily collected huge sums for ''party-building activities'' without reporting who gave the money or how they spent it.

Why not?

That's a question campaign reformers David Finkelstein and Mike Frank want answered. The two men spearheaded the voter initiative that led the Legislature to give Alaska some of the toughest campaign funding laws in the nation. Wednesday, they asked the Alaska Public Offices Commission to adopt an expedited regulation making clear that disclosure of soft money donations and expenses is still required.

APOC should get the rule in place as fast as possible.

This secret traffic in campaign cash creates a breeding ground for corruption. Special interests are now free to spend millions of dollars trying to buy political influence, and Alaskans will never even know about it.

What we do know about the coming explosion of soft money shows a brisk traffic in political cash. A handful of reports trickled into APOC before the parties and their patrons decided they no longer had to follow disclosure laws on soft money.

Various businesses reported giving at least $95,500 to the Republican Party and local branches. The list included two politically active firms, Veco and the Princess Hotel holding company, at $25,000 each. Cornell, the private prison company, gave $12,000. Alaska Communication Systems and Blue Cross each gave $10,000. Outside tobacco companies reported giving $9,000 and two big beer companies gave a total of $4,500.

From that list of donors, the Democratic Party got only crumbs -- $6,000. Apparently it did better with other, unnamed benefactors. To its credit, the party reported its total soft-money collections for this year -- $390,666 as of July 26. If, as the scattering of donor reports suggest, the Republicans are collecting 10 to 15 times what the Democrats get, the GOP's soft money war chest has millions of dollars.

None of this tidal wave of corporate cash would be legal if it weren't for the soft money loophole created by the federal judge. Alaska's 1996 reforms barred unions and corporations from making donations to candidates or political parties.

Three of five APOC commissioners are on record saying that state law still requires soft money to be disclosed. In fall 2001, the three voted to issue an advisory opinion to that effect. But an advisory opinion requires four votes, so APOC has no official position on the question yet. The parties and their high rollers apparently interpreted the commission's no decision as a green light to ignore state disclosure laws.

It takes only three APOC commissioners to approve a regulation that will correct the situation. While the legality of banning or capping soft money is debatable, there are no constitutional obstacles that would prevent the state from requiring disclosure.

Even die-hard opponents of laws limiting the amount or source of campaign donations say disclosure is necessary and appropriate. On that, at least, they're right.

The parties should voluntarily disclose how much soft money they have and where it has come from.

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