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One-time Senate candidate Joe Miller reinvents himself as online news publisher

Jill Burke
Joshua Saul photo

In the same month Joe Miller declared himself to be an online publisher, the Federal Elections Commission warned the one-time U.S. Senate hopeful that he had unfinished FEC business. What Miller has to gain from his latest ventures isn't entirely clear, but by July 26 he's supposed to publicly reveal any future political aspirations he may have.

A conservative Republican who ran on a platform of restoring the nation's political system to one driven by a strict interpretation of the constitutional framework established by the founding fathers, Miller didn't take his loss to incumbent Lisa Murkowski easily. She'd run an unprecedented write-in campaign after losing the primary to Miller, and won.

Nearly two years after his initial trouncing of Murkowski in Alaska's August primary, Miller shows no signs of slowing down. But, after putting to rest a lawsuit (which Alaska Dispatch was a party to until June) with his former employer, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, and trying a brief stint with an Outside tea-party political action committee, the Western Representation PAC, Miller has recently reinvented himself.

During the campaign, Miller found a loyal bloc of supporters, and droves of them. Unhappiness about the economic condition of the country and big-government social policies was abundant and easy to tap into. He had a pulpit, a new, louder voice and people who wanted to hear more.

On Independence Day this year, he announced he'd transformed his former campaign website, joemiller.us, into a full-blown online news outlet. The banner at the top of the page features a headshot of Miller and the words "Restoring Liberty, published by Joe Miller." Since then, the pages have filled with columns, news stories and videos he believes his audience -- which Miller estimates to be thousands of conservative readers -- will want to view.

"After the close of the campaign, Kathleen and I continued to receive feedback from like-minded patriots throughout country asking that we stay engaged. We resurrected the JoeMiller.us website in May 2011. Since then, we’ve seen incredible growth. It’s obvious that people throughout the country are desperate for the real news, with biases of the establishment media stripped away," Miller wrote in a July 4 column introducing the revamped site and its mission.

But there appears to be more on Miller's mind than managing stories and content. A month before the site overhaul, and as the lawsuit with the borough was winding down, Miller put his federal campaign committee, Joe Miller for U.S. Senate, to bed. He filed paperwork to officially terminate it, and transferred its remaining $435,459 to a new federal committee, Citizens for Joe Miller.

Citizens for Joe Miller lists itself as a "principal campaign committee," but it has not officially identified -- other than the obvious reference in its name -- which candidate it was established to support.

The FEC didn't like the lack of detail, and notified the committee on June 21 that the new organization is required to name a candidate, the office sought, and the candidate's party affiliation. It told Citizens for Joe Miller it wanted an answer by July 26.

In a response sent to the FEC soon after it got the commission's letter, the committee refused to name names. Because the committee has not raised or spent $5,000 in furtherance of a federal candidacy, it doesn't believe it is required to provide the information sought by the FEC.

The timing behind Miller's choice to close one election bank account and start anew, and what, if any strategic gain is to be had by it, isn't clear. A Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article in June chronicled how the FEC committee-switching had become a point of interest in Miller's lawsuit against the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which once employed him as a part-time government lawyer.

The campaign-committee musical chairs took place just days before argument was to occur about who was paying for Miller's ongoing legal bills, and how much, a fact of timing not lost on the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The borough, which Miller had sued claiming it wrongfully let private information from his personnel file become public during his bid for office, had raised questions about the account maneuverings in court in advance of a scheduled hearing, and the Fairbanks newspaper wrote about the skirmish.

Miller spokesperson Bill Peck has said the termination of one committee and the start of a new one was not done to outmaneuver questions about the campaign funds, and is adamant there is "no hidden agenda."

Yet there is discrepancy about why the committee was put to rest last month. Peck has said the FEC told Miller it needed to happen, while the FEC has said it was Miller who terminated.

Online records support both versions. Miller did file a letter seeking termination of the committee in June of this year, but he was also notified by the FEC in June 2011 that the committee would have to be closed as part of a settlement agreement. The FEC and Miller had negotiated the settlement after a complaint came in to the FEC during the 2010 election that Miller failed to properly document expenses related to campaign flights he took using a private plane.

However it happened, and for what reasons, may be moot. Candidates sometimes misunderstand the advice they get from the FEC, according to Brett Kappel, a Washington D.C.-based campaign finance attorney with the firm Arent Fox, LLP. And functionally, the old and new committees have the same limitations.

"The Senate committee can’t raise any new money after all its outstanding debts are paid – making it useless as a fundraising vehicle. If all its debts are paid off it makes sense to terminate it. Former candidates can use excess campaign funds for certain purposes – including running for another federal office," Kappel explained.

Citizens for Joe Miller isn't the only committee launched in service to Miller's continuing aspirations. Restoring Liberty, the name of his new online publication, is also the name of the state and federal political action committees Miller created during the first reinvention of his political momentum in the shadow of his 2010 loss. His website claims the group has nonprofit status, and the site features both a fundraising tab and a section for prospective advertisers to inquire about buying ad space.

Yet FEC records show that from the Restoring Liberty PAC's inception, it hasn't raised or spent any money.

A July 15 quarterly FEC reporting deadline could offer new details on both the Citizens for Joe Miller and Restoring Liberty committees. But such reports often take several days, sometimes longer, to become public.

Asked where Miller is heading, what office he plans to seek, Peck would only say "Joe is keeping his options open," and that the former candidate had made no decisions yet about his future political career.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com