Dermot Cole

In an announcement buried on a holiday weekend, Gov. Mike Dunleavy agreed to pay $2,800 to try to end one of the complaints against him in the recall. It won’t settle anything.

The rest of the $35,000 he spent in state funds last year supporting legislators, opposing legislators and trying to get the public to pressure legislators doesn’t count as an ethics case, according to the settlement.

This is a convenient whitewash by Dunleavy and John Tiemessen, the former attorney for former U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller, hired by the state personnel board as an independent counsel to handle the ethics charges against Dunleavy.

The personnel board, which enforces the state ethics act, includes former GOP Rep. Craig Johnson; Keith Hamilton, president of Alaska Christian College; and Alfred Tagmani Sr., a former state employee and member of the board for 14 years.

In the agreement with Tiemessen, Dunleavy doesn’t admit that he did anything wrong when his office spent public funds both defending and attacking legislators in 2019 over the permanent fund dividend and various other partisan issues. He agrees to pay back the $2,800, however, an estimate of what a small part of his state-funded campaign cost.

The independent counsel concluded that state-funded mailers supporting two candidates aligned with Dunleavy on the dividend should not have been paid for with state money because the two had announced plans to run again. Dunleavy should pay the $2,800 back to make things right, Tiemessen and Dunleavy concluded.

Tiemessen said the “circumstances support an inference that these communications were for a ‘partisan political purpose’ as that term is defined by the Executive Branch Ethics Act.”

State money Dunleavy spent on partisan communications directed at other lawmakers and to help his own political goals doesn’t count as partisan, according to Tiemessen. He said legislators had not filed paperwork saying they planned to run for re-election a year-and-a-half later, so anything said about them is by definition not partisan.

Tiemessen wrote that he and Dunleavy agree these communications “were permissible because the officeholders referred to had not yet manifested an intent to run for reelection or further office.”

Under Tiemessen’s faulty logic, it is possible to use public money in any amount to target or support legislators who have not declared plans to run again.

The law says that partisan “means having the intent to differentially benefit or harm a candidate or potential candidate for elective office.”

Tiemessen and Dunleavy should look up the word “potential” in the dictionary. A potential candidate is not someone who has filed for re-election. Everyone in the Legislature is a potential candidate a year-and-a-half before the next election.

In an abrupt change from past practice, Dunleavy’s office spent about $35,000 last year in partisan marketing campaigns that included social media, text messages, and a variety of ads. All of this stopped as soon as the recall movement swept the state.

One of Dunleavy’s Facebook ads said, “A few short years ago, Rep. Tammie Wilson was a champion of the PFD. Now she wants to cut the PFD for future generations to pay for government.” Another included a photo of Sen. Cathy Giessel and the text, “Not every legislator agrees that Alaskans deserve a full PFD.” A third ad included a photo of Dunleavy and requested signatures on a petition, claiming “lawmakers are once again trying to take your PFD.”

Dunleavy used state money to pay for ads trying to get Alaskans to rally and support him and to attack a measure he didn’t like as a “bait-and-switch bill.” Tiemessen said he and Dunleavy agree that the petitions to back Dunleavy on the dividend were not proven to be “for a partisan political purpose.”

If spending state money to tell people that legislators are stealing your dividend is not partisan, I don’t know what is.

In a prepared statement, Dunleavy said the mailers sent to friendly candidates that he will now pay for were created without his knowledge or approval of the specifics.

“I did not know about these communications before they were sent, and had no personal role in drafting, designing, publishing, reviewing, or approving the advertisements,” he said.

“I never intended for state resources to support a partisan political purpose, and I don’t believe I violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act. Nevertheless, I believe it is in the best interests of the state to resolve these complaints, and, for this reason, I am reimbursing the state for the cost of these advertisements and ensuring that my staff undergoes all appropriate ethics training. I am also taking this opportunity to remind the devoted public servants in my office of the very high ethical standards that Alaskans rightly demand,” Dunleavy’s statement said.

Dunleavy’s apologist, Suzanne Downing, wrote that the $2,800 payment ends the matter. Not so fast.

The timing of the ethics complaint last year probably explains why Dunleavy and former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson tried to change state regulations and allow each to sign off on free legal help for each other in ethics cases. That would have come in handy in this matter for Dunleavy. The administration dropped the plan for free legal help after the public raised numerous objections to the proposal.

The governor spent public funds trying to lobby legislators to approve a spending cap, attacked those who opposed his plans on the dividend and other issues. The Anchorage Daily News said the campaign cost $35,000 and included “messages on social media, text messages and automated phone calls to voters in particular legislative districts.”

The agreement by the lawyers said “the parties disagree as to the proper interpretation of the definition of ‘partisan political purposes’ under the Executive Branch Ethics Act, and whether the governor can be found liable under the Executive Branch Ethics Act for violations committed by employees of the Office of the Governor done without his knowledge or approval.”

“The governor shall within sixty days reimburse the state $2,800, and this amount shall not be considered a fine or penalty. This is reimbursement for the estimated amount of public funds that the independent counsel believes should have been paid from a non-public source,” the agreement with Dunleavy said.

One of the allegations in the recall is that “Dunleavy violated Alaska Law and the Constitution, and misused state funds by unlawfully and without proper disclosure, authorizing and allowing the use of state funds for partisan purposes to purchase electronic advertisements and direct mailers making partisan statements about political opponents and supporters.”

The Dunleavy-Tiemessen settlement excuses most of what Dunleavy did last year in misusing public money and ignoring long-standing rules on partisan activities.

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