So-called 527 committees entered the public realm last year as a tool of campaigns and consultants to win elections. But in Alaska, one such group has found a new function: lobbying to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development.
The Alaska to America Energy Initiative, a non-profit group exempt from taxes as a political organization under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, reimbursed travel expenses of more than $2,500 last year for Kris Knauss, Gov. Frank Murkowski's policy director. On the group's dime, Knauss attended the Republican Governors Association November 2004 annual meeting, held in New Orleans, and passed around a resolution for other governors to sign that supported Alaska's push to develop ANWR's oil and gas resources.
"He was pursuing some ANWR advocacy, which is clearly a priority of this governor and of this state," Becky Hultberg, Gov. Murkowski's press secretary, told the Center for Public Integrity. According to the governor's staff, the resolution did not pass.
Many of the group's contributors have lobbied the Alaskan legislature on behalf of energy companies that wish to develop the Refuge. Murkowski, too, has been a steady champion of harvesting ANWR's resources.
ANWR's fate remains a contentious issue in Washington, D.C. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate has not included development of ANWR in its energy bill. To avoid a Senate filibuster, Republican congressional leaders reportedly plan to include ANWR development authorization in a budget bill.
Regulated by the IRS, 527 groups operate outside the reach of both federal and state campaign finance laws. In turn, the political non-profits can accept unlimited contributions from almost any source.
During last year's presidential election, 527 organizations, such as MoveOn.org and Progress for America, registered voters and broadcast television ads. Yet the Alaska to America Energy Initiative seems to have had little to do with campaign finance and more to do with lobbying. Its own original filing states that the group will not influence state elections but will "inform and educate about the importance of obtaining energy for the nation from Alaska and to support candidates who support that goal."
Knauss did not file a gift disclosure form reflecting that the Alaska to America Energy Initiative paid for his New Orleans trip until six days after the Center made a public records request for the disclosure form in mid-June. After his documentation was reviewed by an ethics supervisor, Knauss's trip was reclassified as a state trip instead of a personal one.
Further, the ethics supervisor commented in a "memo to the file" that "historically, the state has paid" for staff to attend RGA meetings when they accompany the governor. Since Knauss was on Gov. Murkowski's staff, "the trip could have been paid with state funds. As such, the payment by the Alaska to American Energy Initiative was a gift to the state, and not a gift to Kris Knauss."
According to the state ethics code, government officials cannot accept travel if it can "reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence" the recipient. In his disclosure form, Knauss checked a box indicating he could not "take official action that may affect the person who gave me the gift."
"The state could have certainly paid for a trip and these questions could have been avoided," said Hultberg. "Upon review, the trip was clearly state business. There were expenditures in the past made for similar purposes."
Knauss could not be reached for comment on this story. The governor's office told the Center that Knauss left employment there on July 1; he gave notice several months ago of his intent to pursue work in the private sector.
Knauss's trip has been the only expenditure reported by the Alaska to America Energy Initiative so far. Yet the group has received several contributions, equaling roughly $15,000, from some of the state's big lobbyists who happen to represent energy companies.
Lobbyist Sam Kito Jr. is one of the group's top contributors at $5,000. In the latest records filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Kito represented the Artic Slope Regional Corporation and the North Slope Borough in 2004. Both clients—one an Alaska Native-owned corporation and the other a county-level jurisdiction which contains the Refuge—are interested in exploring ANWR. In 2003, Kito lobbied Congress about ANWR drilling as well.
Other contributors include:
- Robert Evans, a lobbyist at Patton Boggs' Anchorage office. Along with colleague Kyle Parker, Evans represented Calpine Corporation and Evergreen Resources in 2004—two companies that may be interested in ANWR's potential natural gas. (Evergreen merged with Pioneer Natural Resources in September 2004, another oil and gas company). Evans contributed $1,000 to the 527.
- VECO Corporation. Based in Anchorage, Alaska, the energy services company helped clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill and is poised to share in the construction of a North Slope pipeline. VECO gave $5,000.
- Jerry Neeser, the CEO of Neeser Construction Inc., a construction company that has built schools and government offices under state contracts, donated $2,000.
- Mark Pfeffer, a principal in the Alaska architecture firm Koonce Pfeffer Bettis that has designed state-contracted buildings, contributed $2,000 to the 527.
Win Gruening is the group's only officer listed on IRS disclosures. As the chairman of another non-profit group, the Alaska Committee, Gruening was a vocal opponent of a 2002 referendum that could have moved the state capital from Juneau to Anchorage or Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Gruening's brother, Clark, is a lobbyist who represented the city of Juneau in 2004.
The brothers are the grandsons of "the father of Alaska statehood," Ernest Gruening, one of the state's first two senators. In 1980, Clark ran as the Democratic nominee for a Senate seat, but lost in a tight race to Murkowski, now Alaska's current governor.
An avid supporter of ANWR development, Murkowski has pressured to open up the Refuge in the past. Over a year ago, the Governor was promising to sell offshore leases near ANWR. "We are going to initiate leasing in state waters off ANWR," Murkowski said at a press conference, as quoted by The Anchorage Daily News. "We've been stymied by special interests, but we're not going to stand by anymore."