Governor twits Renkes for not seeking ruling

Democrat Rep. Berkowitz says action 'not even a slap on the wrist'

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2005

Gov. Frank Murkowski has censured Attorney General Gregg Renkes for not seeking an ethics ruling before participating in an international trade agreement from which he could have profited.

In a letter released Friday, Murkowski said he would not seek Renkes' resignation but had "decided to take the unusual step of imposing public employee disciplinary action on a cabinet officer by issuing you this letter of reprimand."

Murkowski wrote that the controversy surrounding Renkes' actions had diminished the public's confidence in the administration. The subsequent investigation came at the expense of state time and money, the letter said.

"Had you sought ethics advice earlier, a substantial distraction to your duties and similar distractions from the duties of other state employees would have been avoided," Murkowski wrote.

The letter was released by Murkowski's office three days after a report by former U.S. Attorney Robert Bundy said Renkes violated Alaska ethics law by not seeking an outside opinion on the attorney general's involvement in an Alaska-Taiwan coal agreement.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, criticized the governor's reprimand as a weak response to an ethical problem within his administration.

"It's not even a slap on the wrist. It's not even 50 lashes with a wet noodle. It's not even a time-out," Berkowitz said by telephone from Anchorage. "I think that the best interest of the state would be served if Gregg Renkes did the honorable thing and resigned."

When asked if the governor considered the matter closed, spokeswoman Becky Hultberg referred to Murkowski's statement on Tuesday when he said the issue would be settled only when Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, withdraws his complaint to the state personnel board.

Croft, who filed the complaint along with Republican Sarah Palin, a former Wasilla mayor, said he would not withdraw his complaint until he evaluated the documents Bundy compiled in his probe.

Those documents are now confidential because they are part of the investigation into a state personnel board complaint.

"Until (Murkowski) is honest with Alaska and shows us the basis of Bundy's opinion, how can I do anything but keep the complaint going?" Croft said. "Let me see the documents and I'll think about it."

Hultberg said Murkowski's letter was forwarded to the state personnel board as an addendum to Bundy's report for consideration.

Murkowski, a Republican, appointed Renkes in 2002. Renkes had served 12 years on Murkowski's U.S. Senate staff in Washington, D.C.

Murkowski's office said Bundy helped draft the letter of reprimand, which was dated Thursday.

Renkes responded in a release sent through his Anchorage office that said he accepted the censure and regretted not seeking an ethics determination. But if he had, his statement said, the ruling would have shown his activities to be within the law.

When Bundy's report was released Tuesday, Renkes told The Associated Press that he and Bundy had simply drawn the line in different places.

"I'm guilty of being my own lawyer," he said. "My actions wouldn't have changed, but I would have had an advisory opinion to defend myself when these accusations were levied by the news media."

Renkes played a major role in putting together the Alaska-Taiwan deal while owning stock in Denver-based KFx Inc., a company that has a patented coal-drying technology and is mentioned in the agreement. Bundy's report said it was a close call, but Renkes' stock ownership wasn't considered significant enough to be a conflict of interest.

Renkes' stock in KFx was worth about $100,000 when he sold it in October after reports were published of his holdings.

Murkowski, in his letter of reprimand, noted that Renkes was no longer participating in the coal talks, had sold his stock and donated the profits to charity, and put the rest of his investments in a blind trust.

Murkowski's letter also said he agreed with Bundy that Renkes used poor judgment in deleting e-mails from his office computer the day that news reports were published about his ties to KFx.

Bundy's report found Renkes had used his office in a way that he could personally profit from the deal, but his level of involvement did not meet legal standards of significance.

Critics responded that the standard Bundy used for significance was faulty. Berkowitz said Alaska's attorney general should be completely above reproach.

Croft has criticized the findings of Bundy's report, saying it was more of a defense brief for Renkes than an independent investigation.

Bundy, Alaska's U.S. attorney from 1994-2001, was hired by Murkowski's office to conduct the investigation.

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