Times, conservation groups target of campaign complaints

Posted: Tuesday, November 07, 2000

Alaska Democrats are accusing a conservative editorial section in the Anchorage Daily News of behaving like an illegal campaign organization. Republicans, mean- while, are accusing a conservation group of illegally fronting for candidates in today's statewide election.

Democratic leaders filed a complaint with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, condemning the Voice of the Times as political attack advertising. The Voice of the Times is a half-page editorial section that appears in the Anchorage Daily News under an agreement to maintain a diversity of views after the Anchorage Times newspaper folded in 1992. Publisher Bill Allen, chairman of oilfield services company Veco Corp., is a supporter of Republican candidates.

Last week, the Voice of the Times published editorials critical of Democratic state Senate candidates Bettye Davis and Mike Szymanski, who are locked in tight races with Republicans Terry Martin and Jerry Ward.

"The clear intent of both pieces is to generate antipathy for Ward and Martin's opponents and generate support for Ward and Martin, and as such, should be considered campaign contributions," Democratic Party Chairman Chris Cooke wrote in a complaint to the offices commission.

"The Voice of the Times is not a newspaper," Cooke said. "It's ad space, just like what J.C. Penney buys. If they use that ad space to promote political campaigns, they have to follow APOC" rules.

Both the Voice of the Times and the Daily News reject the notion that the half-page is advertising.

"They're mad because we had an opinion on candidates?" asked Bill Tobin, an editor at the Voice of the Times. "Don't they know about the First Amendment?"

Mike Sexton, publisher of the Daily News, said the Voice of the Times pays only for ink and paper, not regular advertising rates.

In the past, the public offices commission has informally found that the Voice of the Times qualified for the exemption newspapers enjoy from the campaign watchdog agency's rules, said Shelley Ebenal, APOC's assistant director.

"It's been our policy that editorials are free press," Ebenal said. She added, however, that the facts would be re-evaluated in this case.

The Republican leaders' complaint to the public offices commission accused the Alaska Conservation Voters of violating campaign finance laws.

Republicans claim the conservation group has acted as an extension of six legislative candidates' campaigns by producing and mailing expensive glossy advertisements promoting the candidates while claiming those were "independent expenditures." That type of spending is not limited, according to state campaign finance laws, if the group does not coordinate spending with the candidates.

Groups may contribute no more than $1,000 per candidate, not counting independent expenditures.

The conservation group has supported Democrats Davis, Sarah Scanlan, Sharon Cissna, Harry Crawford and Mark Handy, and nonpartisan Pat Abney.

Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich and four Republican candidates Con Bunde, Ramona Barnes, Jeff Gonnason and Eldon Mulder said they didn't see how the conservation group could have produced the mailers without talking to the candidates.

"Those are professional photos on those mailers," said Mulder, Handy's opponent in House District 23.

Mary Core, executive director of Alaska Conservation Voters, said the group has photos taken of the candidates for its voter scorecard or its newsletter. She said the group has done nothing wrong.

"We've been working very closely with APOC and have not conferred with the candidates," she said. "This is an example of worried people finding something to complain about."

Both complaints were announced Friday. Republicans filed an earlier complaint against the conservation group, accusing it of funneling more than $100,000 from its general operating fund into its political account without specifying where that money was raised and of giving excess contributions to Handy.

APOC director Karen Boorman said the commission will look closely at the Republican complaints after the election and decide whether to investigate.

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