Activists question ethics of group paying for governor's trip

Spokeswoman says New Orleans meeting was personal business for Murkowski

Posted: Friday, July 15, 2005

A November 2004 trip made by Gov. Frank Murkowski to a meeting in New Orleans was paid for by a so-called 527 political committee formed last fall by a prominent Juneau banker.

The group, the Alaska to America Energy Initiative, spent $1,908.57 to send Murkowski to the Republican Governor's Association annual meeting, according to a Nov. 17 state travel authorization form.

The group also spent $2,592 for former Murkowski policy director Kris Knauss to make the trip, according to tax documents provided by the Washington-based watchdog group Center for Public Integrity.

"The question is, is it ... unethical to accept this money from a 527 for this purpose," said Center for Public Integrity researcher Kevin Bogardus. "Here's a state official being paid for a trip by a 527, and I've never seen that before."

A 527 is a tax-exempt, nonprofit political committee formed under Section 527 of the IRS code. Some 527s, such as and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have been influential in national and state political campaigns.

Murkowski, at a news conference Thursday, referred specific questions to his staff, but said 527 committees were "perfectly legal" and there was "nothing uncommon about them."

Spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said a gift disclosure for the trip had not been located and she did not know whether one had been filed by the governor. The trip to New Orleans was considered personal business, according to the travel authorization form.

The document says the group reimbursed Murkowski just for airfare. Hultberg said it was not immediately known who paid for the governor's hotel or meals during his stay in New Orleans.

The governor's trip cannot be considered state business because he was attending a politically partisan meeting, Hultberg said.

Knauss' trip, however, is considered state business that could have been paid for by the state, according to a June 17 memo from Linda Perez, the administration's designated ethics supervisor.

The state has traditionally paid for staff members who are required to travel with a governor attending either the Democratic or Republican Governors Association meetings, Perez wrote.

Knauss also was tasked with collecting governors' signatures for a petition to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, she wrote.

Knauss filled out an ethics disclosure form on June 20. He has since left state government and could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Hultberg said later Thursday that the state would repay Alaska to America Energy Initiative the $2,592 given to Knauss.

"It was simply a mistake on our part. We should have done a closer review at the time and seen it was legitimate state business," she said.

The Alaska to America Energy Initiative, in its 527 organization filing with the IRS, says its purpose is not to influence elections to state office in Alaska. Instead, it aims to "inform and educate about the importance of obtaining energy for the nation from Alaska and to support candidates who support that goal," according to the IRS document.

The Alaska to America Energy Initiative was formed by Juneau banker Win Gruening on Sept. 15, 2004. The group did not claim exemptions from filing reports on contributions in its organizational filing, meaning it has to disclose who donated money to it and where the money was being spent.

Knauss' travel reimbursement was listed as an expenditure on a Jan. 28 filing, but the payment to Murkowski is not listed on any of the group's disclosure forms.

Gruening did not return several calls to his office and home Thursday.

From September through January, the latest information available, the group received $15,000 in contributions. Two $5,000 donations came from oil services company Veco Corp. and Alaska lobbyist Sam Kito Jr. Also donating amounts of $2,000 or $1,000 were Anchorage residents Mark Pfeffer, Gerald Neeser and Robert Evans.

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