A company led by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine entered into a consent decree with the state of Alaska five years ago and paid $45,000 to the state after local retailers alleged that cruise line contractors were violating state law.
But the former Miami Beach mayor says his company didn't enter the market until after the Alaskan government began cracking down.
Royal Media Partners, created by Levine in 2011, was among three cruise line contractors that signed a legal agreement laying out appropriate business practices and enforcement efforts in 2013. The agreements, entered into court as consent judgments, were preceded by complaints from local retailers that cruise line contractors were forcing local shops to pay fees and commissions in order for port lecturers to steer passengers into their stores.
Royal Media Partners and Onboard Media — founded in 1990 by Levine and sold in 2000 — signed agreements. So did Panoff Publishing, a Fort Lauderdale company with no ties to Levine.
The companies, contractors for the majority of the cruise lines that docked at Ketchican and other port cities, provided guides for the ships, as well as promotional materials and informational pamphlets. Retailers who didn't participate complained that they were disparaged by port lecturers. Some referred to the business model as "kickbacks."
The contractors admitted no wrongdoing when signing the consent judgments, which were reported in Alaska by the media at the time. The settlements — executed the same year that Levine was elected to the first of two terms as Miami Beach mayor — were resurrected Tuesday by the Miami New Times in a profile of Levine, now a serious contender to claim the Democratic nomination for governor.
In a statement Wednesday, Christian Ulvert, a political consultant for the Levine campaign, said the Alaskan government began efforts to create stronger disclaimers "on all advertising mediums" before Royal Media Partners entered the market.
"Once this issue was brought to the attention of Royal Media Partners, they joined the State of Alaska in their consent decree as willing partners to make sure that the updated standards were put in place to protect consumers," Ulvert said. "All funds collected through the agreement went directly towards increasing consumer protection standards."
Ulvert said the company entered the Alaskan market in mid-2012, and is unaware of any complaints lodged against it.
At the time the consent judgments were signed, the Alaska Attorney General's office told reporters that lawsuits alleging violations of Alaska's Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act would have been filed were it not for the settlements. But with the companies cooperating, the state secured court-sanctioned agreements that ensured company representatives would not disparage local retailers who chose not to pay. The agreements also guaranteed that representatives would disclose that they were paid to recommend retailers to shoppers, and that the stores to which passengers were referred were not selected due to price savings or the quality of their products.
Together, the three companies paid a total of $200,000 to the state, with Royal Media Partners paying the least of the three companies ($45,000). The money was paid into a kitty to fund investigations, enforcement and education efforts.
Levine told New Times that his company was caught in a local dispute between retailers who supported the services provided by his company and those that were opposed to the business model. Lew Williams, the mayor of Ketchican, was critical of the contractors but made similar comments about the divide among Alaskan retailers in a 2013 interview with Travel Weekly.
"When the attorney general brought it to our attention… we all complied immediately," Levine told the publication. "We said, 'We're very happy to comply with anything. Whatever types of disclaimers that you guys would want, we're more than happy to do. For us it was a minor issue; it wasn't a big deal.'"