Campaign violations may not be public knowledge until well after Election Day if a bill making its way through the statehouse becomes law.
Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, is the sponsor of HB235, which would make all documents related to complaints against lawmakers filed to the Alaska Public Offices Commission confidential until a final verdict is handed down.
“People are filing complaints with almost no merits to them. They’re trying to influence the election,” Higgins told the Empire. “The media doesn’t care — the media says, ‘Let’s put it in the paper’ regardless of whether it’s right or wrong.”
The time between a complaint being filed and the final verdict being issued could be around two and a half months or longer, Higgins said.
The House State Affairs Committee advanced the bill after a brief hearing Tuesday. It now awaits a hearing in the Judiciary Committee.
In addition to related documents being kept under lock and key, any meetings associated with the process would be closed to the public until it is determined whether there was a violation or not.
“This is about APOC doing their job,” Higgins said. “This isn’t about hiding anything, and it’s not about giving anyone a coast ride on any violations.”
APOC is the regulatory body that overseas the ethics of public officials and offices. Along with handling campaign violations, the entity also maintains records of political contribution and lobbyist information.
“Some complaints are perfectly valid, and some complaints are nothing more than political game play,” Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage said.
The bill also includes a provision that says APOC must dismiss any case where it finds the person who reported the violation has leaked that information to the public.
“It takes gamesmanship out of a process that is intended to help guide the behavior of us who are in elected office, and yet not make our behavior until proven guilty a version for the media to toss around,” said Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole.
When asked Wednesday about the possibility of defendants leaking information to get the case dismissed, Higgins said he’d “hope the media would not release information without facts.”
APOC would not be allowed to confirm if a complaint was officially submitted even if provided with a copy of the complaint, he added.
“We can’t close every loophole,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep this from being a political tool.”
When violations are reported in the newspaper, they are front-page news, but when APOC rules there was no violation, the story is downplayed, Higgins said.
“The damage is already done,” he said.
Higgins said that he’s had several close friends over the years lose elections because their reputations were tarnished by false complaints.
“It makes the public biased,” he said. “It gets out of control.”
No one testified against the bill during Tuesday’s meeting.