The Alaska Public Offices Commission on Wednesday fined House Speaker John Harris for misusing $6,929 in campaign contributions, money he spent last year stumping for other Alaska Republican candidates and in his bid to become speaker.
In the November 2004 election, Harris ran unopposed for House District 12, which stretches up the Richardson Highway from Valdez south of Fairbanks, but his campaign expenditure reports show he spent money outside his district in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Sitka and Kodiak.
State law prohibits candidates from spending contributions on anything not related to the campaigns for the offices for which they run.
The commission also found that Harris received $500 more in out-of-state campaign contributions than is allowed, but took no action because he returned the $500 this year to an Oregon donor to meet the $3,000 limit.
Commissioners fined Harris $693, which is 10 percent of the misspent money, after debating whether they should follow their staff's recommendation to waive the fine.
"We have to find a balance between encouraging people to run for office and making sure we enforce the law," said commission chairman Larry Wood.
Harris only learned of the commission's decision when reached on a cell phone by a reporter Wednesday afternoon, and said he did not plan to contest the decision.
"I'll just pay the fine and get it over with. It was an honest mistake but that's the way it is," he said.
Harris said he believed he was within the law when he spent the campaign money on food, travel and hotels for himself and one time for his chief of staff, Tom Wright.
Those expenses were made while campaigning for Republican legislative candidates in Anchorage and Fairbanks, he said. Other money was spent in a personal campaign to lawmakers in his effort to become House speaker, a position selected by the legislative majority caucus and in which the voters have no say.
"I know you can't spend it on your own personal stuff, but I didn't consider it to be that. I considered it to be political in nature and with the duties of the Legislature, you have to be very defining as to what the duties of the Legislature are," he said.
The maximum allowable fine was $67,950 for the 490 days in which Harris' campaign reports were out of compliance. Assistant Director Christina Ellingson said the staff recommended waiving the fine because it was Harris' first offense, he had cooperated with APOC and he had repaid the money.
APOC staff members originally questioned 39 expenses listed on Harris' campaign expense report, and in June asked him to provide documents that showed they were legitimate expenses.
Ellingson told the commission Wednesday that the staff at that point became alarmed that Harris might be using his campaign account to take out personal loans.
Harris sent the commission a $32,132 to cover all the questioned items, writing in a letter that he could not gather the documents they asked for because of time constraints due to his regular work.
The commission's staff returned Harris' check; instead, Ellingson and APOC Director Brooke Miles met with Harris and Wright on Aug. 30 to go over each item and arrive at the $6,929 amount.
Harris said his willingness to pay $32,132 was not an admission that the money had been misused.
"I was mad. I said if it's this big a deal I'll just pay the whole damn thing out of my pocket," he said.
On Sept. 11, Harris paid the full $6,292.75 to his campaign fund, Harris for State House, with a personal check. That same day, he signed two checks from that fund: one to Catholic Charities USA for $2,000, and one to the House Majority Fund for $3,921.07.
The House Majority Fund is set up for Alaska Republican majority caucus incumbents and operates like a political action committee, Harris said. He said he donated the $2,000 to Catholic Charities for its Hurricane Katrina relief fund.
One commissioner, Roger Holl, suggested fining Harris a smaller amount, $300, saying he thought Harris' intentions were good.
"I do believe that this certainly falls short of the more egregious cases," he said.
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