As reported in Must Read Alaska last week, Sen. Tom Begich’s wife and the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization she leads are suing the Dunleavy Administration over what they say are “impounded” funds appropriated for education.
Begich, in the Senate Minority, has little real influence in the upper chamber of the Legislature.
But he makes up for it by having a spouse in Sarah Sledge, who will litigate, win money through the courts for her nonprofit, and use that money to underwrite her organization and support herself and her husband, who brings in far less as a legislator.
The lawsuit she has filed concerns $20 million the Department of Education has not yet released to school districts around the state. Gov. Michael Dunleavy wants to claw those funds back because state government is spending beyond its means.
It’s doubtful he’ll be able to do more than get an A for effort, but he gave it the “old college try.”
It’s also doubtful the lawsuit will proceed, since the Administration has until June 30 to disperse the funds. It could release those funds any day.
Sen. Begich issued a statement in January blasting the governor for cutting the funds. Weeks later, Begich’s wife filed the lawsuit:
A BRIDGE TOO FAR IN CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
Having the spouse of a lawmaker suing the governor has raised questions about Sen. Tom Begich’s conflict of interest, how deeply he is still associated with the group for which he lobbied for many years, and whether the Coalition for Educational Equality, is actually primarily a lobbying entity, rather than a 501(c)(3).
The group was formed in the 1990s and was run by Charles Wohlforth in its early years. Its goal is to improve education in rural Alaska. It does this by finding weaknesses in the State’s education funding decisions, suing the state for more money, all the while claiming constitutional issues.
And it wins in court. The coalition was a lead litigant in the Kasayulie case, which was settled by the Parnell Administration and led to several school capital construction projects in rural communities.
The organization won another large case, the Moore Settlement, from the State of Alaska, and was able to keep for itself some $450,000 of the settlement, the rest going to schools and to pay lawyers.
With those hard-won funds, the coalition was to set up an educator capacity building website, which it did with spectacularly dismal results.
The site is not regularly used by educators, according to sources who were promised anonymity by Must Read Alaska.
The coalition collects membership fees as well. Those fees are paid for by school districts; they are recycled public dollars.
In fact, 95 percent of the funds that the organization gets are public dollars in one form or another, and it uses those dollars primarily to sue for more tax dollars for rural schools.
What rural legislators aren’t achieving in appropriations for rural school districts, the Coalition for Education Equity will.
As for Begich, as late as October, 2016, he was that group’s government relations director. Then, Begich won his race for Senate to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Johnny Ellis. He was sworn in in January, 2017. He’s on the Education Committee.
Sarah Sledge reported to the IRS that only 10 percent of her time was spent on lobbying the Legislature.
Now that her husband is in elected office, it’s a poorly kept secret in the Capitol that Sledge uses Begich’s Room 11 office as her own, and also bunks for free with her husband-senator during her time lobbying in Juneau. This close economic association is only partially listed on his financial disclosure filings with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. By reading the disclosure, the public has no idea just how financially linked Begich and the Coalition for Education Equity really are.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
The salaries for Sledge and her employee total $149,000, exceeding the public money received in the most recent IRS filing, which showed $141,000. Membership dues and assessments bring in another $170,000 — this is State money going to rural school districts, and funneled back to the coalition in dues to sue for more money.
In a state like Alaska, it’s common for husbands and wives to have work roles that overlap, but when it comes to conflicts of interest, there’s no power couple that more deeply defines the problem than Tom Begich and Sarah Sledge.
Begich blasts away from one side: In his February newsletter, he discussed the education legislation he is sponsoring, writing a thesis on the constitutional mandate of providing an education to Alaska’s youth.
He wrote, “That is also why I will do everything in my power to stop the $20 million in cuts Governor Dunleavy proposed in his FY 19 Supplemental Budget, $20 million the Legislature promised to school districts last year.”
Sledge sues from the other side: In her lawsuit, she inventoried “the executive branch’s failure to dutifully execute the law of the State of Alaska by ‘impounding’ appropriated funds has caused and will cause harm to Alaska school children and impairs the ability of Alaska school districts to provide the system of public education mandated by Article VII, section 1 of the Alaska Constitution.”
Is this the kind of conflict of interest that legislators were trying to prevent when they passed the anti-corruption legislation HB 44? Or was HB 44 only designed to discourage those with ties to resource extraction industries from running for public office?