Alaska Gov. Dunleavy will pay $2,800 to settle ethics complaints over publicly-funded political ads

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters at a fundraiser earlier this year. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has agreed to reimburse the state $2,800 his office spent on mailers that may have violated Alaska ethics laws barring partisan political activity, according to a newly-published settlement with an independent investigator.

The state personnel board, which oversees ethics investigations, hired attorney John Tiemessen after three ethics complaints were filed against the governor last year, according to the settlement.

The complaints targeted a social media and mailer campaign launched by the governor’s office that attacked some of his opponents in the Alaska Legislature and boosted some of his allies.

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Alaska ethics law bars the spending of state money on “partisan political purposes,” and Dunleavy’s opponents said that the advertising campaign did just that.

Tiemessen, in the settlement dated Friday, agreed that some of the ads advocated for policy and were not partisan, and he said others were permissible because they referred to legislators who hadn’t filed to run for re-election.

But some of the ads referred to two legislators who had filed re-election-related paperwork, and Tiemessen found that “the circumstances support an inference that these communications were for a ‘partisan political purpose.’”

An attorney for Dunleavy, Brewster Jamieson, declined to be interviewed. But he confirmed the ads questioned by Tiemessen were physical mailers sent by the governor’s office that praised a pair of Anchorage Republican legislators, Sen. Mia Costello and Rep. Josh Revak. (Revak was later appointed to a state Senate seat by Dunleavy.)

Dunleavy, in a prepared statement that was included in the settlement, said he was unaware of the mailers before they were sent, and had no role in personally drafting or publishing them. He said in the settlement that he only approved a “general communications strategy” and told his staff to carry it out “in accordance with all laws.”

Tiemessen, in the settlement, said that he interprets state ethics law to hold the governor “strictly liable” for violations committed by his staff, “irrespective of the intent of the governor.”

Dunleavy disagreed, the settlement said.

As a result, the two sides agreed that Dunleavy would reimburse the state for the amount of public money that Tiemessen argues was illegally spent. Dunleavy also agreed to ensure that all of his staff have taken ethics training, and to publish the three-page settlement on his website along with the prepared statement.

The settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing, it 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,” the statement quoted Dunleavy as saying. “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.”

One of Dunleavy’s chief critics in the Legislature, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields, said he found it implausible that the governor would not have known about the content of the ads his office was running, given that some of them targeted legislative leaders.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields (Skip Gray/360 North)

“I’m sure he didn’t do the Photoshop. But the idea that the governor is unaware that he’s attacking the Senate president using state dollars?” Fields said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Fields asked legislative lawyers to review the governor’s advertising campaign last year, and the resulting memorandum said that the spending could be illegal. Fields said he was disappointed at the lack of “meaningful penalty” for what he described as a misuse of public money.

“Under that logic, if you stole something from Fred Meyer, when a criminal gives it back, it’s all good,” Fields said.

In total, Dunleav’s office spent more than $35,000 on online and print advertising last year to promote his agenda, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Some of the ads attacked sitting legislators for their opposition to larger Permanent Fund dividends, which the lawmakers said would force deep cuts to important government services. Other ads praised Dunleavy’s allies for supporting his proposal to cap government spending.

At the time, Dunleavy’s staff maintained that the ads were legal and had been cleared by the Department of Law.