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Bills would put muzzle on state ethics complaints

Legislators propose keeping filings confidential after flood of complaints against Sarah Palin

Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Two legislators, one Democratic and one Republican, are proposing bills to make ethics complaints confidential. The push comes after former Gov. Sarah Palin said the state's ethics process was used to hound her from offices last year.

Reps. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, and Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, each pre-filed legislation that would bar those who file ethics complaints from revealing that they've done so.

"It prevents the sorts of things we saw when Sarah Palin was running for vice-president," Doogan said.

Lynn was unavailable Monday, but was a supporter of Palin and has criticized how the ethics process was used against her as well.

"Complaints that had no basis at all were filed and immediately turned over to the press as a way of attacking Palin politically," said Doogan, a retired reporter and editor for the Anchorage Daily News.

Doogan said a bill he has pre-filed for the legislative session beginning Jan. 19 appears to do the same thing as a similar bill by Lynn.

Palin foe Andree McLeod, who repeatedly filed complaints against the former governor on several issues, said restricting the public's right to speak out was a bad idea.

"This is protected speech," she said. "This is just a way to squelch or muzzle people who file complaints."

Both the bills would require those bringing complaints to "maintain confidentiality regarding the existence of the investigation." Lynn's bill said.

"A person filing a complaint under this chapter shall keep confidential the filing of the complaint and the contents of the complaint," Doogan's bill said.

Both bills say that if confidentiality is violated, the attorney general would be required to immediately dismiss the complaint.

The bill would apply to the state's executive branch of government. The legislative branch is already protected by a similar confidentiality provision.

Doogan said his bill was intended to prevent the use of the ethics act as a "political weapon."

Ironically, the two bills, had they been law when Palin was running for national office, would have blocked her own strategy of using the ethics process as a political weapon.

After the Legislature's investigation of Palin's firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan turned up evidence that it was linked to Monegan's refusal to fire Trooper Mike Wooton, Palin's former brother-in-law, the former governor stopped cooperating with the legislative investigation.

Instead, Palin filed a complaint against herself with the state's Personnel Board, publicized it, and announced that's she'd only cooperate with that investigation and not the legislative one.

Palin's gubernatorial chief of staff, Mike Nizich, later said the ethics process should be made more secret, but Attorney General Dan Sullivan issued an opinion recommending against sanctions on complainants who violate confidentiality.

"As we have considered ways to protect the confidentiality of the ethics investigations, we have been mindful that penalizing public discourse about the actions of government officials might threaten First Amendment rights," Sullivan wrote.

"Even the attorney general believes this is protected speech," McLeod said. "This is the only tool available for citizens to redress their government."

Under the proposed legislation, a dismissed complaint could be re-filed by someone else.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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