Commission to hear dispute over funding for reserves-tax campaign

Initiative backers call opponents a front for oil industry interests

Posted: Friday, September 22, 2006

JUNEAU - Sponsors of an initiative to tax the leaseholders of the state's natural gas reserves want the Alaska Public Offices Commission to force an opposing group to disclose where its money is coming from.

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The group, Alaska's Future, spent more than $33,000 by the end of August on advertising against the tax initiative, according to a report filed with APOC.

The tax proposal would charge the leaseholders of the North Slope's 35 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves $1 billion for each year a gas pipeline is not in operation. Sponsors say the tax would force construction of a gas pipeline, while Gov. Frank Murkowski and oil industry representatives say the expense of it would kill the project.

Voters will decide Nov. 7 whether the tax plan becomes law.

On Thursday, the commission set a hearing for Oct. 11 and directed APOC staff to complete an investigation and report by Oct. 6.

Two of the three initiative sponsors, Democratic Reps. Harry Crawford and Eric Croft of Anchorage, filed the complaint against Alaska's Future. They call the organization a front for oil industry interests who are trying not only to influence the election results of their ballot initiative, but are also targeting Crawford in his re-election bid.

Crawford faces Republican challenger Jeff Gonnason in the general election. Croft lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Tony Knowles and will give up his legislative seat in January.

Around the time of the Aug. 22 election, Crawford and Croft's complaint reads, Alaska's Future started running television advertisements with pictures of the two lawmakers, suggesting that their initiative would kill the chances of Alaska building a gas pipeline. The commercial flashes the message "Kill the Reserves Tax" at the end.

Crawford and Croft claim Alaska's Future violated the state's initiative disclosure requirements by running those advertisements without naming their contributors and expenditures. Further, because the ad names a candidate for office, the legislators allege Alaska's Future broke the law by accepting illegal contributions to defeat Crawford without making the required disclosures.

"Who is it? That's all we really want to know," Crawford said. "Were they set up as a shill for the oil companies to distribute this advertising money without there being anything to point to?"

Alaska's Future was formed last October as a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation to promote a $25 billion gas pipeline project proposed by BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. The group has been mum about its donors, although BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. has twice acknowledged that it had given money to the group.

The three people listed as incorporators of Alaska's Future are attorneys with the law firm Patton Boggs LLP in Washington, D.C. Three Alaskans are listed as directors: George Culpepper Jr. of Anchorage, Shane Langland of Anchorage and Brandon Maitlan of Fairbanks.

Crawford and Croft say Alaska's Future must list its contributors and expenditures because it qualifies as a "group" under Alaska's campaign finance laws.

Alaska campaign laws define a group as two or more individuals who organize for the principal purpose of influencing the outcome of one or more elections.

In response, Timothy McKeever, an attorney representing Alaska's Future, said the organization does not meet the state definition and should not have to register as a group or report its donations or expenditures.

"Alaska's Future has been active on a number of issues of broad interest to Alaskans and its members," McKeever wrote in his Wednesday filing with APOC.

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