Critics say APOC too slow on election complaints

Posted: Monday, October 14, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Last month, Republicans charged that the Democratic candidate for governor, Fran Ulmer, violated state campaign finance laws when she took a three-hour fund-raising cruise around Prince William Sound.

Earlier this month, Democrats complained that Ulmer's Republican opponent, Frank Murkowski, broke the law when he failed to itemize $40,000 in campaign expenditures.

The commission charged with determining whether the complaints are valid will not meet until Nov. 14 -- more than a week after the general election. A decision on these cases and 12 others filed this year could be months or years away.

Critics say because of the lag, candidates can be hit with charges of wrongdoing whether or not the accusations have merit. The consequences are few. Members of the state's two leading political parties would like to see swifter action.

''The process is terribly flawed, so broken it encourages violating the system,'' said Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich, who this year has filed six campaign finance-related complaints. None have been ruled on.

His counterpart agrees.

''We'd love to see the commission meet more frequently. Then we'd see the results of it right away,'' said Tammy Troyer, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party. Troyer has filed two complaints this year.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission handles public filings from candidates and enforces campaign finance laws. Some commissioners grudgingly agree that the slow pace of rulings may compromise effective enforcement.

''My feeling is justice delayed is justice denied,'' said Mark Handley, a Democrat from Juneau who joined the commission last year. Handley is pushing for a new internal commission policy to address complaints within 60 days.

Commission chairwoman Andrea Jacobson is skeptical of that proposal. She too would like to speed up action by APOC, but investigations, reviews and rulings takes time.

''Instant justice is not possible in such a system,'' Jacobson said. APOC has one investigator. Also, state funding for the agency has been flat since 1997, said assistant director Christina Ellingson.

Handley says without quick action from the commission during the campaign, candidates have little incentive to follow the law. A ruling and a fine after the election could be a small price to pay by a successful candidate, he said.

''If we don't act until after the election, we're a toothless tiger,'' he said.

That cloud -- or at least the hope of creating it with a newspaper headline or television story -- has helped drive a large number of complaints, observers say. So far this year, 15 complaints have been filed. That's as many as filed in every statewide campaign since 1990. Less than a month remains before the election.

''Many of these complaints are legitimate, but a lot of these are politically driven,'' said Ashley Reed, a lobbyist and political consultant in Anchorage.

Curtis Thayer, a Republican campaign strategist in Anchorage, said that the 1997 campaign finance law that restricted political giving also opened ''a Pandora's box of unknowns'' about how to raise and spend political dollars. The complaints are a natural result, a desire to clear the confusion, he said.

Of the complaints filed this year, the commission has acted on only one. It found last month that a soft money advertisement from Americans for Job Security, a Virginia-based group, violated the law because it attempted to influence the governor's race with an attack ad on Ulmer. Such advertisements must be restricted to issues, not advocacy of candidates, according to state campaign law.

However, the ruling has failed to stop other soft money ads that many people believe also violate the law.

''People need to decide whether APOC is a public disclosure agency with policy powers or just a disclosure agency. Right now, its enforcement powers are not as effective as they could be,'' Reed said.

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