Fran Ulmer's gubernatorial campaign violated state election law at least once in the past month.
Republican Party officials have declared that the Democratic lieutenant governor has an ethics problem, saying her campaign represents "a return to Clinton/Gore fund-raising tactics."
Ulmer campaign spokeswoman Deborah Bonito said 22 refund checks, totaling about $3,600, are being returned today to donors who contributed during a Jan. 29 fund-raiser in Juneau.
State law prohibits a gubernatorial campaign from soliciting or accepting contributions in the capital city while the Legislature is in session.
Bonito said the law became effective in June 1998, after the Legislature adjourned its regular session, so no previous gubernatorial campaign had been affected by it. She said the regulation was born out of Robin Taylor's frustration that year, when Gov. Tony Knowles could raise money during the session for his re-election campaign, but Taylor, as a senator, couldn't solicit for his bid for the Republican nomination.
"We're not making an excuse, but it was a total oversight on our part," Bonito said.
The campaign became aware of the violation when the Alaska Public Offices Commission called Wednesday morning in regard to a scheduled Ulmer fund-raiser in Juneau that night, according to Bonito. The event was changed to "a meet and greet" with no exchanges of money, she said.
But Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Republican Party of Alaska, said the original solicitation for Wednesday's event was illegal, anyway. He said he's considering filing a complaint with APOC.
As lieutenant governor, Ulmer oversees the conduct of elections but not campaign finance.
Still, as a longtime office-holder at both the state and local level, she faces the challenge of explaining the illegal fund-raising as an honest mistake without sacrificing some of the reputation for competence that she needs in her upcoming contest with U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski.
Ruedrich takes a harsh view.
"My assessment is she was breaking the law and she knows she was breaking the law," he said. "I would find it tremendously improbable, in as observant a group as they purport to be, they would be unaware of this."
Ruedrich also asserted that the Ulmer campaign broke a separate law by using state-owned computers in Washington, D.C., to e-mail announcements of a fund-raiser there. Bonito flatly denied that, and Ruedrich failed to produce any evidence of it by the Empire's midday deadline.
Exchanges of campaign-violation allegations are common in high-profile races.
Democrats said Murkowski violated Senate ethics rules when he announced his gubernatorial campaign in October because he listed his Senate press officers and their telephone numbers as contacts on his written news release.
But unless a fund-raising scandal becomes particularly egregious - as it did with 1998 Republican gubernatorial nominee John Lindauer - the public doesn't pay much attention, said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
But McBeath said that APOC is underfunded. "The watchdog agency barely has enough personnel to take the forms when they come in and process them."
Therefore, the news media needs to do a better job at watching the flow of campaign money, he said.
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