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Palin freezes covert oil ad campaign
Anchorage Daily News


May 31, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Early last summer, voters in four key western states were exposed to radio and newspaper ads exhorting them to push Congress to allow more oil drilling on U.S. soil, in the name of national security -- and cheaper gas at the pump.

The ads were identified as coming from an organization called Americans for American Energy, which described itself a "grassroots-based group" with support from coast to coast.

In fact, Americans for American Energy was an empty front, set up by a political ad agency working under a controversial $3 million sole-source contract from the State of Alaska.

The ad campaign was funded by the Legislature last year to press Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. But Congress didn't do it, and with Democrats now in charge, the prospects for drilling are dimmer than ever.

This month, however, the Legislature voted to extend the contract for Pac/West Communications another year and broaden its mission to include "continued education efforts on Alaska energy issues."

Gov. Sarah Palin at first supported continuing and expanding the contract. But last week, after questions were raised about how Pac/West had spent $1.3 million in state funds so far, Palin reconsidered. Now she is pulling the plug on the state's advertising campaign. Palin's concern, a spokeswoman said, was not with the campaign itself but with the hurried $3 million contract, which "was not part of an open and transparent process."

Palin plans to freeze the contract, "re-evaluate the needs of those dollars and, if appropriate, start a new award process" with competitive bids, said Meghan Stapleton, the governor's communications director.

On the losing end of the decision is Oregon-based Pac/West, a company with conservative Republican ties known here for its recent political campaigns opposing efforts to ban bear baiting in Alaska and impose new taxes on cruise ships.

Alaska House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said the state went with a no-bid contract because time was short, Harris said. The no-bid deal raised hackles among some Republicans as well as Democrats last year. But it was defended by U. S. Senator Ted Stevens' son, then-Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage.

The creation of a front group by Pac/West for its campaign reprised a familiar strategy for the company. Such organizations, often funded by industries with a stake in the political process, have become common ways to carry their media message under the appearance it has grassroots support among ordinary people. Critics refer to them as Astroturf groups.

Pac/West's failed $1 million ad campaign against a new cruise-ship tax, for example, featured Alaska small-business owners. But it was financed almost entirely by the North West CruiseShip Association of Vancouver, British Columbia, according to state campaign records.

In the case of the oil-backed ads, the focus group-named Americans for American Energy paid for newspaper and radio ads that targeted Nebraska, North Dakota, Arkansas and Montana. The advertising equated drilling on American soil with national security. The ads never use the words "Alaska" or "wildlife refuge."

An e-mailed "action alert" hit harder, talking about Iran, terrorism, nuclear weapons and the need for "drilling in just .01 percent of a barren, mostly frozen area known as ANWR."

The state-funded campaign included paying subcontractors to write opinion columns for newspapers and appear on talk radio, according to spending records.



Contact Tom Kizzia at tkizzia(at)
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Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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