Empire editorial: Dump Renkes, ethics code

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

Far from being the last word on Attorney General Gregg Renkes' ethics and standing as Alaska's top lawyer, Tuesday's release of a report about his actions in a state coal deal is only the start of needed change.

The end must bring both new ethics rules and a new attorney general.

Contracted by Gov. Frank Murkowski to probe Renkes' negotiations on a deal to sell Cook Inlet coal to Taiwan, former U.S. Attorney Robert Bundy found that the attorney general should have requested an ethics determination but otherwise did not break the law. That's because Alaska's law is so vague, not specifying a dollar figure that pushes a public official's investment portfolio into the realm of a conflict. Renkes' $100,000-plus investment in and close ties to KFx, the Denver company that stood to gain from the coal agreement, apparently doesn't rise to the state's legal definition of a conflict. It should and, once state lawmakers are done, it probably will.

In the meantime, Murkowski is wrong to insist that this, along with his reprimand, closes the matter and that a state personnel board inquiry should end. Where many ethics considerations hinge on an elusive perception of cozy relations, the attorney general's sizable stake in KFx cannot be viewed as anything but a conflict. Bundy finds the conflict insignificant because Renkes' shares represented no more than .02 percent of the company's total. But the issue isn't how Renkes' shares affected the company; it's how they stood to affect him. Bundy's recommendation that the state adopt a $10,000 investment limit for any government official potentially influencing a company's standing with the state says it all: $100,000 is a lot of money. That much is apparent to most Alaskans, whose median income in a family of four is some $30,000 less.

Regardless of where Renkes' investment and active promotion of KFx and the coal deal stood with the law, it is unfathomable that he would not have understood that his involvement could affect him financially. Knowing this, it was reckless to get involved officially in the first place, and it was unpardonable not to at least ask for an official opinion about that involvement. If this behavior brings only a slap on the wrist, Alaskans will be right to doubt the integrity of their government. The governor should demand the attorney general's resignation since Renkes hasn't had the integrity to offer it himself.

Further, it is imperative that this Alaska Legislature remedy the lax ethics code. The state's reliance on and support of natural resource industries and the companies that fuel them makes it doubly important that the law spell out right and wrong and assure citizens that their officials are acting on Alaskans' behalf, and not for their own bank accounts.

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