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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Outright Lies’ in Alaska?

In the Alaska Senate race, the special interest battle is on: A radio ad from GOP frontrunner Dan Sullivan complains of “outright lies” in a TV ad from a super PAC supporting Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. The pro-Begich ad, meanwhile, complains about the billionaire Koch brothers supporting Sullivan’s campaign. We didn’t find “outright” falsehoods, but both ads are misleading.

Sullivan says that Begich “was unconcerned” about the closing of an oil refinery near Fairbanks and the loss of 80 jobs there. The ad claims Begich said, “It’s the private sector making a decision.” But that was only part of Begich’s response. He went on to say: “We have to do everything we can to be sure those who have jobs, those families, have opportunities.”

Meanwhile, the super PAC, Put Alaska First, claims in its TV ad that Sullivan “remained silent about jobs being lost” at the refinery, which is owned by Koch Industries. Not exactly. Sullivan’s campaign “remained silent” not on the lost jobs, but on an anti-Koch brothers campaign by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that highlighted the fact that Koch Industries is closing the Alaska refinery while Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group created by David Koch, is spending hundreds of thousands attacking Begich.

Both sides are stretching the facts in an attempt to make the other look uncaring on the loss of Alaskan jobs and beholden to outside special interest groups.

Koch Ads and Refinery

In this toss-up Senate race, Begich has been weathering a storm of attack ads from Americans for Prosperity, to which David and Charles Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, have been major contributors. Begich has fought back with ads saying these “billionaire outsiders” should “go home” and highlighting the fact that Koch Industries is closing the Flint Hills Resources oil refinery.

In late April, the pro-Begich super PAC released another ad featuring the Flint Hills closing, but this time going after Sullivan, the former Alaska attorney general whose poll numbers put him neck-and-neck with Begich. The ad says Sullivan “remained silent” on the loss of jobs at the refinery, and it says the Koch brothers are “supporting his campaign.”

The ad features an Alaska resident saying to camera: “When the North Pole refinery closes, 80 jobs are gone. Those jobs mean everything for a lot of folks around here. But for those lower 48 billionaires that are shutting it down, those jobs are just numbers on a spreadsheet.”

Koch Industries owns Flint Hills Resources, which announced in February that it was closing its North Pole refinery and laying off 81 employees by Nov. 1. Pollution of the local water supply, which was an issue before Koch acquired the refinery in 2004, was one reason the refinery said it was ending its operations. Jeff Cook, Flint Hills’ regional director of external affairs, told Anchorage’s KTUU-TV that the groundwater cleanup costs were “in the tens of millions of dollars, and along with the economic challenges of refining in Alaska, [it’s] caused us to make this decision.”

The Alaska Dispatch reported that weeks before the closing announcement the refinery had asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to allow much higher concentrations of the chemical sulfolane in groundwater than the state had considered acceptable. The Dispatch wrote: “The company has tangled with the state Department of Environmental Conservation over what the appropriate level of cleanup is for the site and on property near the refinery. It is also battling the former owner of the refinery in court over liability for the spill.” While it will no longer refine oil, the facility will be an oil shipping and storage terminal.

The loss of 80 jobs at a refinery owned by Koch Industries — and the fact that the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity is spending heavily in the race — has made the closing a focal point of this campaign.

The Put Alaska First ad goes on to say that Sullivan “remained silent about jobs being lost here,” while on screen viewers see: “Sullivan’s campaign has declined comment.” The citation is for a March 6 post by Alaska political blogger Amanda Coyne, who wrote about the DSCC’s campaign, called “GOP addicted to Koch,” which highlights the refinery closing and Americans for Prosperity’s spending on ads attacking Begich. Coyne wrote: “The DSCC is pressing the Senate GOP challengers for a response. Dan Sullivan’s campaign has declined comment.”

So, his camp declined to comment on Democratic criticism of the Koch brothers’ actions in Alaska and advertising in the Senate race.

Sullivan’s camp counters in its radio ad that Sullivan “worked hard to keep the Flint Hills refinery open while he was our [Department of Natural Resources] commissioner.” That’s a reference to a DNR-negotiated contract extension in 2013 for the state to sell barrels of royalty oil to the refinery. Kevin Banks, director of DNR’s Division of Oil and Gas, told Fairbanks’ Daily News Miner that the state wanted to sell the oil at a competitive and reasonable rate. “We were interested in negotiating a contract that would ideally keep these guys in business,” Banks said. But a year later, the refinery is closing.

The super PAC’s ad then ties Sullivan to the heavy anti-Begich spending by Americans for Prosperity, saying, “And those same billionaires, the Koch brothers, are supporting his campaign.” On screen, the ad says: “Close to $1 million on ads.” The citation is for a March 19 Alaska Public Radio story that said Americans for Prosperity had “already spent close to $1 million on ads against Mark Begich.”

The AFP ads haven’t mentioned Sullivan, nor has the group or the Koch brothers given directly to Sullivan. Some voters may get the impression from the ad that Sullivan had spent close to $1 million on ads thanks to Koch money. And Sullivan counters in his radio ad that he “has never taken a dime from the Koch brothers.” True, but it’s certainly reasonable to say that ads attacking the incumbent are, by extension, ads supporting the leading challenger. Whether Sullivan wanted AFP’s help or not, he’s getting it.

Sullivan’s Radio Response

Sullivan responded to the Put Alaska First attack with a radio ad in late April that begins: “Mark Begich’s liberal allies have no shame, telling outright lies about former Attorney General Dan Sullivan.” The PAC’s ad was misleading, mainly on its characterization of Sullivan’s response to the refinery closing. But “outright lies”? It doesn’t rise to the level of an outright falsehood, let alone a “lie,” which would mean there was intent to deceive, something we don’t know.

Sullivan’s ad goes on to offer its own misleading take on Begich’s response to the loss of jobs at the refinery. It says: “It was Begich who was unconcerned about the closing of the Flint Hills Refinery, saying quote, ‘It’s the private sector making a decision.’ ” Begich did say this, but he followed it up with, “We have to do everything we can to be sure those who have jobs, those families, have opportunities.”

The news story that includes that quote, from KTUU-TV, also paraphrased Begich as saying “that the closure could cause a trickle-down effect that will impact businesses like shipping, as a local source of jet fuel disappears, and the Alaska Railroad, which moves product from Flint Hills south, as many as 30 cars a day, five days a week.”

Voters can make up their own minds as to which candidate cares more — or less — about the refinery jobs. But the very article the Sullivan campaign cites shows that Begich wasn’t “unconcerned.”

Sullivan’s ad accurately says that he “has never taken a dime from the Koch brothers” and that Begich “has taken campaign cash from the Kochs.” The pro-Begich ad didn’t claim that Sullivan took money from the Kochs, only that the brothers are “supporting his campaign.” Voters should know the Koch Industries money to Begich was a $5,000 donation in 2010 to his leadership PAC. That’s 0.5 percent of the total amount the Great Land PAC has raised since the 2010 cycle (a total of $989,000). The PAC gives money to other Democratic congressional candidates and funds non-campaign expenses.

The ad goes on to say that “Begich’s false attacks on Sullivan are funded by liberal special interests in Washington, D.C., not Alaskans.” That’s a point Sullivan’s spokesman, Mike Anderson, also made to us via email: “[W]hat is at the height of hypocrisy is the fact that Put Alaska First is attacking the influx of outside spending when the PAC is almost entirely funded by liberal billionaires who are not from Alaska,” he said.

Indeed, Put Alaska First, headed by local lobbyist Jim Lottsfeldt, has received 82 percent (or $645,000) of its contributions from Senate Majority PAC, a group partly run by former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But outside-of-Alaska money is the norm in this race, and both candidates are relying on those dollars heavily. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 75 percent of Begich’s contributions and 89 percent of Sullivan’s are from out-of-state sources. This is perhaps not surprising: As the Center for Responsive Politics notes, Senate candidates from “the most sparsely populated states may get nearly all their money from out of state,” and Alaska ranks 47th among the states in terms of population.

Still, each candidate attempts to challenge the Alaska credentials of the other in these ads. Put Alaska First says, “Maybe if Sullivan was actually from Alaska, he’d care more about our jobs than his own,” while Sullivan’s radio ad counters, “Begich lives in a million-dollar house in Washington, D.C., not Alaska.”

Sullivan isn’t from Alaska – he’s from Ohio – but made Alaska his home from 1997 to 2002, then worked in Washington under then-National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and came back to Alaska in 2009. As the Anchorage Daily News explains, his “Alaska authenticity” has been questioned by both Begich and GOP candidate Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Begich — who, of course, now works in Washington as a senator — is a former mayor of Anchorage and was born and raised in that city.

— Lori Robertson, with Rachel Finkel