APOC looks for options to enforce campaign rules

Public Offices Commission to investigate illegal polling

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Alaska Public Offices Commission expects its investigation into illegal polling to be productive and useful, the agency's executive director said Wednesday.

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"I think we're going to have some success in making this public," said Brooke Miles of APOC, a watchdog agency for campaign financing.

That's despite a statute of limitations that bars APOC from issuing penalties for violations of campaign finance laws.

The five-member commission decided Monday to look into the revelations by former VECO Corp. Vice President Rick Smith during the trial of former state Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, that the oil field services company paid for polls - as many as 100 - to favored candidates.

Kott, now a Juneau resident, is awaiting sentencing in federal court Dec. 7 after being convicted of three counts, including bribery, extortion and conspiracy this week. Among those charges was the accusation that he'd accepted a poll worth thousands of dollars for his campaign. In exchange, he was said to have supported a lower tax rate on oil sought by VECO.

Miles said APOC's one-year statute of limitations on campaign finance violations would not prevent an inquiry.

"We can't file a complaint that's against our regulations, but just because we can't file a complaint doesn't mean we can't investigate," she said.

Information developed by the commission's staff could be turned over to the attorney general or the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics for those agencies use, she said.

"There's an avenue for referral there, and that's one of the things this agency does," she said.

If a candidate did not report a poll paid for by VECO as a campaign contribution, that may mean the value of the poll was a personal gift.

If an official of the executive branch or legislative branch did not report the gift to the appropriate ethics disclosure agency, that could be a violation that those agencies could pursue even if APOC cannot, Miles said.

"We have broad powers of investigation," she said. "Our findings may be useful to an alternative law enforcement agency.

Smith testified that VECO provided polls to former Gov. Frank Murkowski, Kott and numerous other legislators. It is not clear how all those polls were provided, if they were requested by the candidates, or if the candidates even knew they'd been done on their behalf.

Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula, leader of the House's minority Democrats, said she wants those issues investigated.

"They should be looking at all this," she said.

The Legislature's Ethics Committee has not been adequately staffed in recent years, and has been operating under secrecy rules that limit its effectiveness, Kerttula said.

The Ethics Committee may need more authority and resources as well, she said, to help restore confidence in state government.

Also Wednesday, the Alaska Public Interest Research Group said it had mailed surveys to all legislators to see what role VECO played in their elections.

"AkPIRG is asking legislators to complete the survey so that Alaskans can be assured that the upcoming special session has not been tainted by past VECO actions," said Steve Cleary, the group's executive director.

Gov. Sarah Palin called a special session of the Legislature to begin Oct. 18, saying the Petroleum Profits Tax adopted last year was suspect because of allegations that several legislators had accepted bribes to vote for lower tax rates.

The AkPIRG survey's first question asks whether the legislator has ever met with VECO executives in the Baranof Hotel's notorious Room 604, which was monitored by the FBI.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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