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Governor’s office used state-funded campaign to harvest Alaskans’ data, ethics report finds

Gov. Mike Dunleavy in January.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy in January.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 6:17 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The governor’s office used online petitions in 2019 to collect voters' personal information for a campaign that never ran, according to a report on an ethics complaint filed against the governor.

The full ethics report was first published by Alaska Public Media, which received it through a public records request.

The complaint was filed in July and centered on whether the governor violated ethics laws by using state money in 2019 to pay for political advertisements on Facebook. The complaint was resolved in early September with the governor agreeing to reimburse the state $2,800.

John Tiemessen, the independent counsel for the Alaska Personnel Board, found that the vast majority of the ads did not violate the Alaska Executive Ethics Act, but two mailers were potentially problematic.

The mailers thanked Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, and then-Rep. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, for their votes on the PFD and crime bills. Tiemessen said that “the circumstances support an inference” that they were for a partisan political purpose because both lawmakers had signaled that they would run for reelection.

Collecting voters' data was not considered to be an ethics violation by Tiemessen.

The 2019 Facebook ads said that people could sign a “petition” in support of a full Permanent Fund dividend, to pass tough crime bills and to call for the Legislature to cap government spending.

“However, the Governor’s attorney’s correspondence with Independent Counsel indicates these “petitions” were only used to gather constituent information and were not used to directly petition the legislature or to advocate for the subject policies in any manner,” the ethics complaint report reads.

Tiemmesen wrote there was “insufficient evidence” that the list of voters' information was used to harm a candidate for office which would have potentially violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act. There was also no indication that the mailing list was distributed outside the governor’s office, Tiemessen wrote.

Brewster Jamieson, the attorney representing the governor in the ethics complaint case, said collecting voters' information is an inherent part of a petition campaign.

“The act of signing a petition is to provide voluntarily information to the person who is gathering the signatures for that petition,” Jamieson said by telephone. “There’s nothing nefarious or unexpected or unusual about it, it just happens to be digital rather than in-person.”

What happened to the list of voters' personal information remains unclear. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comments on whether the mailing list still exists, how many Alaskans gave their personal information during the campaign and what the governor’s office intends to do with that information.

Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said a public records request would need to be filed to see the list itself.

Tiemessen cautioned in his ethics complaint report that under certain circumstances, using the mailing list in the future could violate ethics rules. “A curated list may have value to the Governor’s office for use in future targeted communications with self-selected groups of citizenry,” Tiemessen wrote.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields has criticized the governor for using state funds for the ads. He is also dubious of the assertion that the governor knew only broadly about the campaign.

“The notion that the governor’s staff did this without the governor’s knowledge is completely preposterous,” Fields said.

He also said while many of the governor’s actions may have been found to be legally permissible under current ethics laws, additional oversight may be necessary by the Legislature.

“And of course, the governor should not be using public funds to harvest Alaskans' personal information,” Fields said.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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