A nonprofit group formed with the help of the state's largest oil companies can keep its membership secret, the Alaska Public Offices Commission ruled Tuesday.
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The group, Alaska's Future, does not meet state requirements that would force it to disclose its income and expenditures, commissioners said.
In making their decision, commissioners said they had to follow a confusing exception to state campaign finance disclosure laws. Chairman Larry Wood asked the Alaska Legislature to take up the law again "and put some more meat around it."
The decision was the result of a complaint made by two sponsors of a Nov. 7 ballot initiative to tax the leaseholders of the North Slope's natural gas reserves. Democratic Reps. Eric Croft and Harry Crawford of Anchorage filed the complaint with APOC after Alaska's Future aired a television commercial urging Alaskans to vote against the initiative.
Croft and Crawford said Alaska's Future should be forced to register with the state so voters could see the source of the money used to influence an election. They call the group a front for Exxon Mobil Corp., BP and ConocoPhillips through which they can fight tax hikes anonymously.
With the commission's ruling, other industries now have a roadmap on how to mislead the public and stay hidden, Croft said afterward.
"It's a lie, but they just got permission to keep telling that lie," Croft said.
Earlier this month, the founding president of Alaska's Future, George Culpepper Jr., told The Associated Press that the group was the brainchild of the three oil companies and political consultant Art Hackney. By the time the group legally formed in October 2005, ConocoPhillips had dropped out because it was close to a fiscal contract with Gov. Frank Murkowski on a North Slope natural gas pipeline, Culpepper said.
ConocoPhillips' vice president of external affairs has disputed that ConocoPhillips was an originator of Alaska's Future. ConocoPhillips decided not to accept Hackney's recommendation of helping start a third-party group then, and only became a member of Alaska's Future last month, Jack Griffin said in an e-mail to The Associated Press
The group's current president, Shane Langland, said the mission of Alaska's Future then and now is to promote jobs, a vibrant economy and fiscal planning for the state. He said Alaska's Future has hundreds of members across a number of industries, and the ballot initiative was just one of the issues the group was looking at.
The commission's ruling was unanimous, but each commissioner urged state lawmakers to take another look at the law upon which it was based: At what point does an association of individuals become a group the public needs to know more about?
"I am troubled because I believe that the record is incomplete, and I'm also troubled because I think the statutes and regulations are extremely confusing," said Commissioner Elizabeth Hickerson.
Under the law, a group must register with the state if its primary purpose is to influence the outcome of an election.
Because Alaska's Future was created as a nonprofit corporation meant to educate Alaskans on several pro-business issues, the group does not have to register, an APOC staff investigation concluded.
The group disclosed $33,800 in expenditures for the television ad that aired against the ballot initiative, but does not have to disclose anything not directly related to the initiative, the staff recommendation reads.
Croft argued that a primary purpose of the group was to fight oil tax hikes Therefore, they should be required to register, he said.
Not so, said APOC executive director Brooke Miles and Department of Law attorney Margaret Paton-Walsh: The Legislature wrote the law specifically to prevent some groups from having to disclose their memberships.
Alaska's Future falls in that loophole, even if the group's primary purpose changes.
"They appear to be covered by this exception that the law very clearly created," Paton-Walsh said.
Timothy McKeever, the attorney for Alaska's Future, said without Culpepper's direct testimony, what he said to the AP does not rise to the level of credible evidence in this case.
"The commission can't base its decision on newspaper articles, which are hearsay at best," McKeever said.