Sen. Seekins' latest ethics bill raises new questions

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Alaska Sen. Ralph Seekins on Tuesday presented a new version of his bill to change the state's ethics laws, but the measure raised even more concerns and questions from lawmakers.

The Fairbanks Republican's bill calls for a civil fine of up to $5,000 for anybody who talks about an ethics complaint filed against an executive branch employee.

"If we're going to have a confidentiality requirement, then there should be a penalty for someone who breaks it," Seekins told the House State Affairs Committee.

If the state personnel board finds there is probable cause to go forward with an ethics complaint, the confidentiality provision would no longer apply under the bill.

The bill, which was introduced last year after Attorney General Gregg Renkes resigned over a conflict-of-interest scandal, has been revised before. The original version made breaching confidentiality a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. The bill passed the Senate last session.

Among the changes in Seekins' latest version is the removal of a provision to fine a person who talks about an ethics complaint when that complaint is still in the planning stages.

The new bill also says the state personnel board can rule that a frivolous complaint has been filed and can direct the state attorney general to pursue civil legal action.

The new version lists specific exceptions to whom a person can disclose the filing of a complaint to without penalty, exceptions that would open personnel board proceedings and exceptions in which documents would be available for public inspection.

But under questioning by committee members, Seekins could not definitively draw the line between a public disclosure and talking about the matter to a friend or spouse.

He said the intent of the bill was to keep frivolous complaints out of the news, not to penalize somebody for talking over a complaint with a spouse.

"This person can go home and talk to their wife or husband, but they can't talk to the press," Seekins said.

Seekins' bill also would limit to $10,000 the stock a public employee could own in a company while working on a matter related to that company.

But his measure would allow an employee to own an unlimited amount of stock as long as it was in a blind trust which the worker had no control over.

Committee Chairman Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said under the bill, a public employee could own $100,000 or more in stock and not have it considered a conflict.

Seekins said the blind trust provision was a common option in ethics laws across the nation.



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