The lieutenant governor and the state's top environmental regulator took a trip to New Orleans last year paid for by one of the state's top oil companies.
The trip did not violate state ethics law, an ethics expert said, but a public interest activist said it raised questions about fairness.
According to a recently released report on executive branch officials' travel and lodging, Atlantic Richfield Co. paid for Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown to attend a christening ceremony for a new Arco tanker in October. The company also paid for Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer to attend the christening.
While in Louisiana, Ulmer and Brown took a side trip to an Exxon natural gas-to-liquids plant in Baton Rouge. Exxon paid their transportation there and lodging for the extra night.
Brown said she sees nothing wrong with accepting the trip and said it's not something that would influence her in regulatory decisions involving the oil industry.
``People don't buy you with those trips,'' she said. ``Trips are a nuisance,'' she said, adding she'd prefer being home with her family. ``It's not like I'm going on a vacation.''
With budget constraints limiting funds for travel, this was a way to save money, she said.
It was important to attend the christening, Brown said, because Arco is building double-hulled, ``millennium class'' tankers that exceed the requirements of federal law. ``Commemorating the big step Arco took is very important to convince the other shippers to do likewise.''
John Lindback, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, said her acceptance of the trip was also legitimate. State officials are often asked by industries to participate in ceremonies that mark some sort of business milestone, he said.
``When it occurs this far away like this one did, it's most appropriate for the company to pay these costs and not expect the public to pay the cost of sending someone across the country like that,'' he said.
Costs picked up for Ulmer amounted to about $1,800 for transportation and lodging, plus $265 in transportation for the two state officials to visit the natural gas plant in Baton Rouge, said Glenda Carino, a special assistant in Ulmer's office.
Neil Slotnick, who until recently was an assistant attorney general handling ethics law issues for the state, said the trips were permissible under the law that governs executive branch employees. Slotnick is now a deputy commissioner in the Department of Revenue.
``The rule is that you can't accept a gift if it's given under circumstances that you could reasonably infer that it was intended to influence your official actions,'' Slotnick said.
The key consideration is whether the individual would gain personally from a gift, he said. If the trip could be considered a gift to the state, rather than a gift to the individual, it's acceptable.
The test of that is whether the cost of the trip is comparable to what the state would have paid if it was writing the check. An extremely lavish trip would be considered a gift to the individual.
Brown said she didn't travel at a higher class than she would have on the state's dollar.
Jim Sykes, executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, however, questioned whether such trips are appropriate.
``Sometimes it's legitimate. Sometimes it's not,'' he said. ``Most of the time I would say it's not legitimate.''
Such trips give companies much more access to regulators and government officials than they would have by simply making an appointment to meet with them in their office, he said.
``Here they have (the government officials') complete undivided attention. They're getting a pleasurable experience, getting exposed to whatever the company wants to communicate to them,'' Sykes said. ``I just generally don't think it's good public policy.''
Arco spokeswoman Dawn Patience said Arco offered to pay the way of a number of Alaskans to attend the christening, and about 10 came, including mayors of Cordova, Valdez and Seward and Valdez state Rep. John Harris, a Republican. Some chose not to accept, she said, including some members of the news media.
``The lieutenant governor actually played a key role,'' Patience said. Ulmer was the only Alaskan who spoke at the ceremony and was quoted nationally through an article written by the Associated Press.
Carino said Ulmer should not be singled out for criticism because legislators also toured the natural gas plant at Exxon's expense. The Legislative Ethics Committee office said 16 lawmakers, including 10 Republicans and six Democrats, visited the plant.
The fact that legislators also take such trips doesn't mean it's not a problem, Sykes said.
Brown said other DEC employees also rely on the businesses they regulate for transportation at times. In some cases businesses must provide transportation if DEC permit-writers are to inspect remote operations they're writing permits for.
``We don't have the money to send them out in the field,'' she said.
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