Alaska editorial: There must be standards for appointees who face charges

Posted: Monday, February 12, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Gov. Sarah Palin doesn't have a lot of leverage to deal with indicted University of Alaska regent Jim Hayes. Her own attorney general says she doesn't have undisputed power to fire a regent. Regents do not serve at the pleasure of the governor, says Attorney General Talis Colberg. They may be fired only for cause.

To an ordinary person, it might seem that being indicted on 92 counts of skimming money from a federal grant is sufficient "cause" for firing. Alas, it's not that easy. The attorney general says Mr. Hayes is "probably" entitled to a hearing before the governor could fire him. That hearing would likely be a long, drawn-out affair, covering the same ground as his eventual criminal trial in federal court.

If Mr. Hayes had any respect for the institution he serves, he would resign, or at least step aside on a temporary basis until the charges are resolved, but he remains defiant. Trying to force him out before his federal trial could provoke a costly lawsuit. At this point, the only surefire way to rid the regents of Mr. Hayes appears to be impeachment by the Legislature.

Alaska's governor needs better tools to deal with ethically compromised appointees like Mr. Hayes. The Legislature's current work on ethics reform offers the perfect opportunity.

Lawmakers should declare that any state board or commission member who is indicted for a felony or other serious crime must go on administrative leave until the charges are resolved. The appointee isn't fired; he or she would remain a member but could not participate in official business. Most board and commission members are volunteers, getting only travel and meal expenses, so they would not lose any income from being put on leave.

True, a law automatically disqualifying a board or commission member, even temporarily, might raise separation-of-powers questions. Under the Alaska Constitution, the power to make executive branch appointments rests with the governor. A governor might assert the power to keep an indicted appointee aboard if he or she chooses. (Gov. Palin, elected as an ethics reformer, would be unlikely to do so.)

It's not unusual, though, for the Legislature to define the qualifications of those who serve on a board or commission. In effect, the Legislature would add a new qualification for any state board or commission member - namely, avoid indictment for a serious crime.

As ethical standards go, that's not an especially high bar. There ought to be room in the Alaska Constitution to set that standard for those serving on state boards and commissions.

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