Sen. Tom Begich: A legislating and litigating household - Must Read Alaska
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Wednesday, October 23, 2019
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Sen. Tom Begich: A legislating and litigating household

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:

Sarah Sledge lawsuit for Coalition for Educational Equity

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.

14.08.04 Moore Settlement Amendment No. 1 – executed 2

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.

Read: Coalition for Educational Equity Tax Returns

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?

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Amazing reporting Suzanne ! One wouldn’t have a clue about this connection in crime, feathering ones bed is almost never seen in the light of day… Thank you

  • Let’s ignore the Pruitts. maybe she doesn’t bunk with her husband when she is in Juneau. $185,000 for a part time job that she is not even successful at. You may dislike Sledge and Begich but apparently from your article they have been successful.

    • Leo, your comment brings a smile to my face. There most certainly are different methods in achieving success, some more dubious than others. Rationalizing or turning a blind eye to questionable and negative actions is, more often than not, harmful to others in the community.

    • Speaking as someone who has been around long enough to remember, Linda Anderson had to regularly fight to keep her lobbying contracts due to her marriage to Steve Frank and the appearance of a conflict of interest it created. I don’t see why this should be any different.

      • Well stated Sean. I can’t remember which lady candidate it was for Borough Mayor in Fairbanks, but one of them made a comment in a debate that if elected, the First Thing she was going to do was to fire Linda Anderson and no longer fund a lobbyist position for the FNSB. Either Donna Gilbert or Tammie Wilson. She lost her election. The mainstream press never disclosed and the corruption lived on. Disgusting!

  • Someone should look into the 501c3 for this organization they could very well be violating Federal Law in the 501c field of exemptions.

  • Thank you, Suzanne. If not for your loyal and dedicated reporting, most of these shenanigans would be kept quiet in the mainstream press. There might be more than a conflict of interest to consider in this type of suit. Questions of impropriety, frivolous use of the courts, and real ethical problems for Sen. Begich may be raised. I am going to study this issue more, with some help from some very capable legal minds. I will get back with you. Sarah, Ms. Begich, may be getting her spouse into one hot mess….legally and politically. These hard Leftists will play the system relentlessly until caught. Let’s catch them….and no release.

  • Yes, thanks to Alaska’s premier watchdog reporter, Suzanne and MRAK, citizens can now be apprised of the corruption and graft involving certain people who game the system. Full disclosure! Accountability! Apparently lacking with Senator Begich and his wife, Sarah, who use and abuse taxpayer’s money. I’ve always known that there is something phoney about the Begich family. Here it is! Mrs. Tom Begich, with her hands in the cookie jar, using the Begich name to make her living off of the public. Self-interest and corruption disguised under “helping the children.” Democrats and Leftists have played this game for eons. Nothing new here. Now its time to expose the Begichs for what they really are and stand for: FRAUD, OPPORTUNISM, THEIVERY. They are really a low-class family of crooks.

  • The entire Begich clan are legends in their own minds. All of the older adult children have been benefiting off the death of Nick Sr. for the past 45 or more years. Its time to end it, before the legend becomes fact and dishonest partisan reporters print the legend. Thanks to Suzanne’s objective reporting and providing FACTS, the Begich legend can soon be put to rest.

  • So this organization, CEE, is supposed to improve education in the rural schools? How successful was it in accomplishing its mission? 0%. It lives on lawsuits, govt grants (from where? the state of AK?) and recycled govt/taxpayer money in the form of member dues.

    • Rural educated folk did learn how to spell Mercowsky….well….sorta

  • Suzanne, the last sentence of your article is correct objective of HB 44.

  • The Coalition For Educational Equity is nothing more than an organized interest, outside of government, that is accommodated administratively by bureaucratic interests to effect spending of the people’s money. Governor Dunleavy is correct to deny the acceptance of these funds because the CEE is not a government entity in fact. Not even a quasi-government agency. Sarah Sledge is trying to force her hand with a suit, for self-interest purposes, which creates a conflict to her Senator husband. Whatever it takes, Dunleavy must oppose her suit with every resource available to him, and seek attorney’s fees to be paid in full by Sledge for bringing her nonsense to the Courts and further wasting Alaska’s money, time and energy. Sledge has gamed the system, not unlike direct theft of government funds for personal use. This should be a crime, punishable with real prison time. Her and Begich both, for conspiracy to defraud the government.

  • Mark Begich, Tom Begich and by the way Joe Begich from Eveleth MN who was in the MN legislature. Great job of reporting Suzanne My comment “Birds of a Feather Flock together.”

    • Dont forget Nick Begich Jr. He’s kind of the odd Begich out. Appears on late night talk shows, discussing ghosts, flying saucers, monuments on Mars and the Moon, and HAARP mind control. Come to think of it, Dr. Nick might be the only Begich with his head screwed on tight.

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