The ethical problems of Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich continue to dog Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in her bid for a full term, as her opponents in both the Aug. 24 GOP primary and the general election call on her to renounce the embattled party leader.
Now the state’s ethics investigation against Ruedrich has prompted an Alaska resident to file a formal complaint against Murkowski with the Senate Ethics Committee.
Although the timing may have been coincidental, the Murkowski campaign responded Tuesday by releasing a poll showing the appointed Senator with a healthy lead in the Republican primary.
But one GOP opponent, former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea, continued to insist that Ruedrich’s problems “will bring Lisa down.”
Ruedrich admitted last month that he violated Alaska’s Executive Branch Ethics Act while serving as a gubernatorial appointee to the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission last year.
He agreed to pay a $12,000 fine for conducting party business while on the clock at his $118,000-a-year state position. He also admitted leaking a confidential memo to an industry lobbyist, acts the state prosecutor cumulatively dubbed “abuses of office.”
Because he was appointed by the same person who appointed Lisa Murkowski to the Senate — her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) — Ruedrich’s actions, and Alaska Republicans’ subsequent circling of the wagons to protect him, prompted Shea to challenge Murkowski in the Aug. 24 Senatorial primary.
Shea said he is “tired” of “Republicans ignoring unethical leadership and individual responsibility.”
Murkowski’s unwillingness to disassociate herself from Ruedrich, or call upon him to resign his post as party chairman, has infuriated Shea and has Democrats hoping that the repercussions carry over to the fall, when the winner of the Republican Senate primary will square off with former Gov. Tony Knowles (D).
Meanwhile, Ruedrich’s e-mail correspondences with Lisa Murkowski’s former chief of staff has prompted a self-described “activist” to file an ethics complaint against the Senator.
Theodore “Chip” Thoma, a Juneau resident and former state employee, alleges that Justin Stiefel may have violated “the statutory prohibition against the misuse of funds appropriated by Congress by using official Senate computer facilities for political campaign purposes.”
Combing through e-mails released during the state investigation of Ruedrich, Thoma noted e-mails exchanged between Stiefel, now Murkowski’s campaign manager, and Ruedrich sent during business hours.
Murkowski’s campaign maintains that Stiefel did not improperly use Senate office equipment for political purposes.
“The nature of the attack by Mr. Thoma is cleverly timed, yet is sure to yield no results other than to cost taxpayers more money,” a Murkowski campaign statement reads. “As was already reported by the Anchorage Daily News in May, the e-mail in reference was sent from a home computer, using a private e-mail account, relating to activities that were private in nature and had nothing to do with either official Senate business or Senator Murkowski’s campaign.”
Murkowski spokesman Elliott Bundy further explained on Tuesday that although the e-mail in question was sent at 5:08 p.m. on a Monday, Stiefel was at home that day tending to his pregnant wife who had a doctor’s appointment.
Thoma said the question could be put to rest easily enough if Murkowski released Stiefel’s log from his old Senate computer.
“We assume the Sergeant-at-Arms and Ethics Committee has a process and procedures for getting to those” e-mails and finding the truth, Stiefel said.
Murkowski’s challengers said the complaint does not surprise them.
“Apparently, playing fast and loose with the ethics rules runs in the family,” Knowles’ spokesman, Matt McKenna, said. “The good news for Sen. Murkowski is that she can get her advice on how to fight this around the dinner table instead of from a lawyer.”
Shea predicted that the ethics complaint is only the beginning of potentially damaging fallout for the Murkowski campaign from Ruedrich’s actions.
“There’s far more to come,” Shea said. “I think that Randy Ruedrich really is going to bring Lisa down, and I think Justin is a part of it.”
It is unclear if Thoma’s charges will gain any traction. The Senate Ethics Committee accepts complaints from anyone, but most of its work is kept confidential unless a reprimand is handed down, and the entire process can be lengthy.
Thoma, who admits he supports Democrats more frequently than Republicans and has donated to Knowles’ campaign, said Ruedrich’s actions were “shameful” and that “Justin is guilty of the same thing.”
He added that it is an example of the Alaska Republican Party losing its way, an accusation Shea has echoed.
“They will try to get away with these sort of things; that’s the level they will go to to win,” Thoma said.
Republican heavyweights in Alaska are standing by Ruedrich — both Murkowskis, Sen. Ted Stevens, Rep. Don Young and another GOP Senate candidate, former state Senate President Mike Miller — and have all refused to demand that Ruedrich resign his chairmanship.
At the GOP convention in May, the steering committee reaffirmed its faith in Ruedrich and refused to reprimand him in any way.
Bundy said the campaign had nothing else to say on the matter and would only refer to Murkowski’s previous comments in which she said she believed the Ruedrich matter was settled.
Shea has related a conversation with Stiefel in which he says Stiefel told him that Murkowski would not distance herself from Ruedrich because she believes she needs him to win a full term.
Stiefel has denied saying that and contends the conversation steered nowhere near such a statement.
Murkowski was appointed in 2002 to finish her father’s Senate term when he was elected governor.
The Republican-controlled state Legislature changed the law governing how Senate vacancies were filled to deny then-Gov. Knowles the opportunity to name Frank Murkowski’s successor, leaving the task to the incoming governor.
Charges of nepotism have hurt both Murkowskis ever since and encouraged at least Miller, who quit the state job to which he was appointed by Frank Murkowski, to enter the Senate primary.
Nonetheless, a poll released Tuesday by the Murkowski campaign showed her trouncing her GOP contenders and besting Knowles in a head-to-head matchup.
Murkowski led Miller 65 percent to 22 percent in the GOP primary, according to the poll conducted by Alaska-based David Dittman on behalf of the Murkowski campaign. That is a net gain of 4 points for Murkowski compared to last month.
Neither Shea nor Jim Dore, a fourth GOP candidate, were tested in the poll of 511 Alaskans conducted June 23-30 with a 2 percent error margin.
The general election matchup has been neck-and-neck for months. Dittman found Murkowski leading Knowles 44 percent to 42 percent.
He also reported that she has an 84 percent approval rating among registered Republicans and a 65 percent approval rating overall.