Legislature called to act on corruption

Recommendations to governor are among many being proposed

Posted: Friday, January 19, 2007

A political odd couple working at the request of the governor called Thursday for tough ethics reform in Alaska.

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Ethan Berkowitz, a former state representative and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, and Wev Shea, former U.S. attorney for Alaska, spoke at a press conference in Juneau asking the state Legislature to deal at last with a serious corruption problem in state government. "I tell you, it's a major, major problem," Shea said.

Shea and Berkowitz presented Gov. Sarah Palin with a report called "Ethics White Paper," recommending new financial disclosure rules for legislators and members of the executive branch.

Among its suggestions is a requirement that legislators who claim to be business consultants show what they actually do for their money.

It also includes conflict-of-interest regulations, which would bar officials from taking action on matters in which they have a financial interest.

The report also names names. It says, for example, that former Senate Judiciary Chairman Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, and former House Judiciary Chairwoman Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, compromised Alaskans' confidence in the Legislature when they failed to pass ethics legislation last year.

Seekins was defeated in the election in November, while McGuire was elected to the Senate and will chair the State Affairs Committee this year.

Ethics have been a hot issue in Alaska since FBI agents raided offices of 10 percent of the Legislature last summer, and another legislator was indicted on corruption charges later last year.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said Thursday he feared more bad news from the federal investigations.

Web link

A verbatim copy of the document containing suggestions for the governor is available here: Ethics White Paper.

"I think there will be some ugly stuff come out," he said.

Shea agreed, saying the FBI is usually reluctant to get involved in state political issues and would not have taken a step such as the search unless it had serious concerns.

President Bush likely had to approve the searches personally, he said, citing their timing, Sen. President Ben Stevens' involvement and the importance of the gas line issue.

Palin, who appeared Thursday with Berkowitz and Shea, asked them to review the state's ethics situation and recommend changes. She called up former opponent Berkowitz less than a week after taking office.

The issue is particularly timely, Palin said. There were no legislative meetings Thursday as Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, joined House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, in requiring all members to attend an intensive review of ethics rules.

Several ethics bills have already been introduced in the Legislature, and Palin's legislative director, John Bitney, said he expects committees to begin work on ethics legislation Tuesday.

The report will help form Palin's ethics proposal, he said. While Palin's team touted the "Ethics White Paper" as dramatic reform, others have proposed changes that appear even more drastic.

Former Republican legislator Ray Metcalfe, now head of the Republican Moderate Party, has recommended abolishing the Alaska Public Offices Commission and creating a new agency within the judicial branch of government.

The new commission would be protected from legislative influence, and also would handle the duties of the current Ethics Committee of the Legislature.

Members of the new commission would be appointed by the Supreme Court instead of political parties, he said. Metcalfe wants to see any investigations handled by trained criminal investigators with the Alaska State Troopers, who have union protection.

"The new commission should be empowered to address all public corruption in whatever form it takes," Metcalfe told APOC earlier this month.

Former State Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, said if the state was going to bar outside sources of income for legislators, it should consider turning lawmaking into a full-time job. Serving in the Legislature now pays about $24,000 a year.

The only way most can afford to serve is to be retired or have a wealthy spouse, he said.

"I think we need to talk about it," he said. "Is that the kind of Legislature people want?"

Having a citizen legislature sounds good politically, but professional legislators may be necessary, he said.

"It may be time to pay legislators as much as commissioners," Weyhrauch said.

Weyhrauch's office was among those searched by the FBI in August. He had earlier decided not to run for re-election.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Berkowitz also ripped the state's news media, blaming turnover in Capitol reporters from keeping them from adequately covering the Legislature.

Berkowitz singled out the Anchorage Daily News for criticism, saying that as the state's largest paper it had a responsibility to provide better legislative coverage.

During a special session last year on Murkowski's gas line contract, the Daily News did not send a reporter to Juneau, he said.

And Shea said the capital's isolation from the rest of Alaska made it difficult for citizens to monitor their legislators.

"We might as well be in Maui," he said.

The ethics report says that in some cases the Legislature should simply comply with existing laws, such as the Open Meetings Law. Decisions now being made behind closed doors, such as in party caucus meetings, should be done in the open, Berkowitz said.

"This is the people's building," he said. "The people shouldn't find a closed door anywhere."

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com

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