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GOP activist says Alaska Sen. Hollis French broke campaign laws

Jill Burke
Aaron Jansen illustration

Bernadette Wilson, a Republican activist for candidates past and present, has set her sights on Sen. Hollis French, a member of the state's bipartisan coalition who's battling to keep his seat against well-funded Republican challenger Bob Bell. Less than two weeks before Election Day, Wilson filed an urgent complaint with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the state agency that monitors financial and disclosure compliance of groups and candidates during elections.

Wilson alleges she's uncovered proof that French's campaign and an independent election group, Putting Alaskans First, have been working together in violation of the state's campaign laws.

“We should all be striving to have a good, clean, transparent campaign,” Wilson said during a press conference Thursday held at Alaska's GOP headquarters in Anchorage. “This is a fairly grievous violation.”

French did not return phone calls. Vince Beltrami, founder of Putting Alaskans First and President of Alaska's AFL-CIO however was quick to weigh in. “It is just a pathetic attempt to throw a wrench into the election,” Beltrami said of the complaint and its timing.

It's the latest drama in a high-profile Senate race that has pitted an incumbent member of the Senate bipartisan coalition against businessman Bob Bell, who has openly criticized the coalition and believes “American politics are based on partisanship.”

Putting Alaska First has been running ads supporting French and other senators who have joined the coalition, one that pro-oil interests view as a road block to lower oil taxes that could kick-start higher oil production through the trans-Alaska pipeline. It's a divisive issue for Alaska: haggling over how high the tax rate should be to make sure Alaskans get their fair share without making it so high oil companies will take their business, or new investments, elsewhere.

By combing through APOC reports, Wilson has found what she characterizes as three significant links between French and Putting Alaskans First, a union-backed group which is supporting Republicans and Democrats in an effort to save the coalition:

  • The treasurer listed for Putting Alaskans First, Chris Herberger, is listed as “preparer” on an APOC report filed by French.
  • An entity called The Hamburger Company has signed agreements to place media buys for both French and Putting Alaskans First campaigns.
  • Both campaigns have retained the services of a company called Mundy Katowitz Media, Inc., a media buyer.

That's a problem, according to Wilson, because state regulations define independent expenditures as something that “is made without the direct or indirect consultation or cooperation with, or at the suggestion or the request of, or with the prior consent of, a candidate, a candidate's campaign treasurer or deputy campaign treasurer, or another person acting as a principal or candidate of the candidate.”

For outgoing GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich, who stood with Wilson at the press conference, that definition is enough to squarely place the legality of the links uncovered by Wilson into question. “The cumulative effect is you have multiple entities working on behalf of a single activity, and therefore it can't be independent,” Ruedrich said.

“That's ridiculous,” Beltrami said Thursday afternoon, reached by phone at his office after Wilson's press conference. “It looks to me out of desperation they are trying to come up with a way to influence the election. It's like saying we all have the same dentist.”

Beltrami's point is that the people and companies listed on the reports of French and Putting Alaskans First are nothing more than vendors. Herberger is an accountant, Martin Hamburger is a media buyer who uses Mundy Katowitz to make the purchases, Beltrami said.

“Coordination would imply that we have somehow planned or coordinated together. We have had absolutely no communications or planning of anything with the Hollis French campaign,” he said.

Maybe so. But to Ruedrich, regardless of what took place or how APOC will view it, it still looks bad. “It's not just conflicts, it's also the appearance of conflicts that you try to avoid,” he said.

Wilson has asked that until the issue gets resolved, all ads placed by French and the Putting Alaskans First committee be “pulled immediately.” When pressed by a reporter to cite under what legal authority a campaign ad could be pulled from the air, Wilson reiterated her belief that APOC has the power to do so if it sees fit.

She's asked for an expedited hearing, which she expects will take place between now and Monday.

Bell was recently fined $390 by APOC for not fully disclosing the clients that have contracted with the engineering company that he founded.

Contact Jill Burke at jill@alaskadispatch.com