Judge rejects attempt to block Alaska’s dark-money political disclosure law

By Monday, third-party groups must disclose the ‘true source’ of their funding

By: - July 14, 2022 5:51 pm

A voter in Alaska’s special U.S. House primary election drops their ballot into a box on Saturday, June 11, 2022, as a poll worker observes. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

A federal judge has rejected an attempt to temporarily block a new Alaska law requiring greater disclosure of third-party donations to political campaigns.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason issued an order denying a preliminary injunction requested by seven plaintiffs, including two groups that have a history of supporting Republican candidates.

Gleason concluded “that plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on any of the three counts pleaded in their complaint,” which requires her to reject the request for a preliminary injunction. 

The plaintiffs had been seeking to stop the dark-money provisions of Ballot Measure 2, passed by Alaska voters in 2020, from coming into effect before this year’s elections.

Monday is the deadline for candidates and groups to file their first financial disclosures ahead of the Aug. 16 statewide primary. These disclosures include all donations received through Friday.

Candidates aren’t the only ones required to file. So-called “independent expenditure” groups that run ads without direction from a candidate or campaign also must disclose their donors.

Historically, many large independent expenditure groups have been funded by one or more national nonprofit organizations. Federal law does not require these groups to disclose the source of their money, which has been nicknamed “dark money,” and until Ballot Measure 2, Alaska state law didn’t either.

Ballot Measure 2 requires disclosure of the “true source” of the money, not just the nonprofit acting as an intermediary.

In April, Doug Smith of Anchorage, Robert Griffin of Anchorage, Allen Vezey of Fairbanks, Albert Haynes of Wasilla, Trevor Shaw of Ketchikan, Families of the Last Frontier, and Alaska Free Market Coalition all filed suit against the Alaska Public Offices Commission, which is in charge of implementing the Ballot Measure 2. 

They were represented in court by an attorney from the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center, and Craig Richards, a former Alaska attorney general who now works in private practice. (Richards is also chairman of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board of trustees.)

Joining the state in defense were Scott Kendall, the lead author of Ballot Measure 2 (and former chief of staff to Gov. Bill Walker), and former Alaska attorney general Jahna Lindemuth. Both represented Alaskans for Better Elections Inc., the group that campaigned in favor of Ballot Measure 2 and has since supported its implementation.

The plaintiffs argued that requiring donors to disclose their contributions violates the First Amendment.

“The freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment includes a right to the privacy in those associations,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.

But in her analysis, Gleason said the disclosure requirement is “directly related to the state’s important interest in promptly providing voters with information about the source of funding of political advertisements by independent expenditure entities.”

She said the requirement is written in such a way that it isn’t burdensome, duplicative or unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs also challenged parts of Ballot Measure 2 that require independent-expenditure groups to list their top three donors and state whether they were paid for with money from outside Alaska. 

In their argument, the plaintiffs said the requirement discriminates against nonresidents without sufficient justification and amounts to government-mandated speech.

Gleason rejected those arguments, saying that the plaintiffs did not show they were burdensome and that the disclosures serve an “important informational interest and are narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”

Gleason’s order applies only to the request for a preliminary injunction and not to the overall merits of the case, but within the order, she said that each of the plaintiffs’ allegations is unlikely to succeed at trial.

Richards deferred questions about the case to a spokesperson for the Liberty Justice Center who did not return a phone message Thursday, and it was not immediately clear whether the plaintiffs intend to proceed in trial.

In the meantime, the order means disclosure will be required, though at least one group has found a way to temporarily sidestep it.

In February 2021, three days before Ballot Measure 2 took effect, the Republican Governors Association donated $3 million to support the re-election of Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The true source of that money remains undisclosed.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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