Alaska editorial: Legislature must act to restore public trust

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Alaska lawmakers need to adopt tougher ethics laws. But, of equal importance, legislators need to increase funding and staffing for ethics enforcement.

Anything else would fall short of what the public deserves and what lawmakers must do to restore Alaskans' trust in their elected and appointed officials.

That isn't to say state government is running wild with corruption. It's not. A lot of good people serve in the Legislature and work for state agencies. But a few have so flagrantly ignored the intent of ethics laws that Alaskans deserve to see a strong response this year from lawmakers.

The Legislature especially needs to shore up an embarrassing weakness in enforcement. Embarrassing because it took a federal grand jury to uncover the corruption case against former Rep. Tom Anderson. Embarrassing because the Alaska Public Offices Commission - the watchdog over campaign contributions, lobbyists and financial disclosure reports for legislators and several hundred state employees - has 30 percent fewer staff today than it had when Gov. Frank Murkowski took over in 2002.

And embarrassing because legislators - and the public who elected and re-elected many of them - have known for years about the weaknesses in enforcement and reporting requirements. There just wasn't the political will to pass new laws, add to enforcement budgets, or to vote out those legislators who deserved the boot.

This is the year to fix all that.

The public is angry at the Anderson indictment. They are angry at former state Sen. Ben Stevens' six-figure, politically connected consulting contracts. They are angry that several Cabinet members in the Murkowski administration left office amid ethics allegations. They showed that anger when they elected Sarah Palin as governor in November and when they tossed out of office Fairbanks Sen. Ralph Seekins, one of the biggest obstacles to ethics reform.

Gov. Palin has introduced a comprehensive ethics bill on campaign finance, financial disclosure and conflicts of interest. The Senate Judiciary Committee, as its first act of business approved, without objection, two ethics bills. And the House State Affairs Committee has started work on its bills.

Whatever reforms pass into law this year must contain at least the following provisions:

• Reporting not only how much lawmakers earn outside the Legislature, but how they are paid - hourly, commission, a fixed amount - and a thorough description of what they did for the money. No more hiding behind the one-word answer: Consulting. And whether their disclosure is thorough enough should be up to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, not a legislative committee. If the commission wants more details, it should get them.

• Mandatory electronic reporting of all campaign finance, lobbying and financial disclosure reports to the Public Offices Commission. That would make it easier for the public to research what public officials are doing.

• No longer allow legislators to escape financial disclosure reports for their last year in office. They should be required - just like their colleagues still in office - to tell the public where they earned their money.

• Prohibit legislators from representing clients in any action before state agencies. It's OK if a lawmaker wants to help a constituent for free; that's part of the public service job. But no way should a legislator get paid to advocate for anyone with a case before a state agency. It's just too ripe for the appearance of impropriety and pressure.

• And any state official whose personal stake in a business, property or other asset is worth more than $5,000 cannot come anywhere near state action that might affect the investment. The lack of a clear line allowed Gregg Renkes to own $100,000 in stock in a company he helped promote as attorney general - until public pressure forced him to resign in 2005.

It's not a complete list, but it's a good start. One that is overdue.



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