OPINION: RIP, ‘Paid for by ConocoPhillips’
In a little-noticed post mortem to the Stand for Salmon initiative battle last fall, the Alaska Public Offices Commission issued a ruling that will serve to limit transparency in campaign financing for future ballot measures.
APOC ruled Feb. 4 on a complaint filed last September by the initiative opponents, Stand for Alaska-Vote No on 1, against three entities supporting the measure: Yes for Salmon-Vote Yes on 1, The Alaska Center and Stand for Salmon.
In addition to violations of naming regulations and rules for financial disclosures known as the “paid for by” statements, the opponents’ complaint alleged that the latter two initiative proponents should have registered as a group based on their close coordination and should have also been required to disclose the source of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign expenditures above and beyond what they reported in donations.
If you’re interested in the more arcane legal arguments over what constitutes a “group” or an “individual” or the more common decisions on “paid for” statements and naming rules, the APOC complaint documents and final order are on its website (complaint 18-08).
We’ll focus on how APOC’s ruling on financial disclosures figures to upend the state’s goal of transparency in campaign spending.
For quick background, Stand for Salmon and The Alaska Center were formed in 2013 and 1990, respectively, while the Yes for Salmon group was formed and registered with APOC in 2017 for the specific purpose of backing Ballot Measure 1 in the 2018 general election.
The Stand for Alaska complaint focused on its calculations that The Alaska Center reported making contributions to the campaign in excess of $500,000 while reporting donations of about $234,000.
Similarly, Stand for Salmon reported spending more than $400,000 while receiving about $181,000 in contributions, according to the opponents’ calculations that were mostly undisputed other than the supporters claiming that they over-reported the amount of donations they received to back the initiative.
All in all, about $730,000 of the $1.1 million in reported contributions to Yes for Salmon, the official group registered with APOC to support the initiative, were classified as “non-monetary” with the top donors being The Alaska Center at $357,000 and the Washington, D.C.-based New Venture Fund that paid the salary of campaign manager Ryan Schryver with a total “non-monetary” contribution of $227,000.
Stand for Alaska objected to this arrangement, arguing that Yes for Salmon was nothing more than a shell organization and that the campaign was actually being run by Stand for Salmon and The Alaska Center who were clearly expending more than they were collecting without having to report the source of the money.
As was previously written in this space, groups like The Alaska Center, Cook Inletkeeper, Trustees for Alaska, Salmon State, and others are heavily supported by nonprofit advocacy groups based outside of Alaska.
There isn’t anything wrong with that, but these same groups regularly run their campaigns — and this one was no different — attacking “foreign” oil and mining companies as heartless ravagers of the resource whose arguments should be discounted as Outsiders despite having thousands of employees and billions of dollars invested over decades in Alaska.
Whether it was the 2014 campaign to uphold the 2013 oil tax reform legislation or the most recent salmon habitat initiative, the resource companies have erred on the side of transparency no matter how self-serving it looked politically.
In 2014, the end of every pro-SB 21 commercial was followed by the statement “Top three contributors are BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips” or some variation of that order.
It was the same in 2018, with a combination of BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Donlin Gold or Teck usually holding down the top three positions in the disclosures opposing Ballot Measure 1.
Taking the information provided through transparent financial reports as a weapon to slam their opponents while at the same time not being transparent about the source of their own Outside funding takes a particular brand of chutzpah, but politics ain’t beanbag, as they say.
Ultimately, APOC sided with the initiative backers on the basis that Stand for Salmon and The Alaska Center, as entities, predated the campaign and are not specifically organized to support any particular ballot measure.
For that reason, any money in their general funds that was not expressly solicited for the purpose of the campaign does not have to be reported even if it is used to support the campaign.
You don’t have to be Kreskin to see where this goes.
There is no shortage of pro-resource development organizations in Alaska, and all of them could be quite capable of running a campaign to defeat the next anti-development initiative that comes along.
Under APOC’s ruling, all they have to do is form an organization such as “No to NIMBY” and then allow some other established entity, say, the Resource Support Association, to run the campaign out of their offices with their staffs and call it all a “non-monetary” contribution to the official “group.”
Under APOC’s ruling, as long as they spend money from general funds not earmarked for or solicited for that election, they wouldn’t have to disclose a dollar of where it came from.
Take resource issues out of it and there is still the potential for this game of hide the ball on every ballot measure going forward.
APOC’s ruling may not go against the letter of the law, but it obviously goes against the spirit of transparency that our campaign disclosure rules are intended to demand.
If we have seen the death of disclosure in ballot measure spending, it will be thanks to what may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for the supposed opponents of “dark money” who turned to its side in 2018.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].