Governor signs bill restricting pardon power

Clemency law marks another shift from Murkowski methods

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gov. Sarah Palin on Tuesday signed the first bill from the 25th Alaska Legislature to become law, limiting on the governor's constitutional power to grant pardons.

"In a perfect world this wouldn't even be necessary," she said.

The new law requires that a governor notify a victim or victim's family before issuing a pardon. Most previous governors have done that as a matter of course.

Gov. Frank Murkowski did not.

The catalyst for the change was the death of construction worker Gary Stone. He went in 1999 to work on a job building a hydropower dam near Cordova, located in what was reported to be "one of the worst avalanche sites in construction history."

The 46-year-old father of five died on the job when an avalanche swept over his work site.

Stone's boss, Whitewater Engineering owner Thom Fischer, told state officials that the responsibility for Stone's safety rested with the worker, not the company, and that Stone could have quit at any time.

Fisher told investigators that Stone "called the shots" in deciding to work that day.

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Alaska prosecutors didn't buy it, but Murkowski did. He pardoned Whitewater on Nov. 30, 2006, and left office Dec. 4.

Fischer said he feels his Bellingham, Wash., company was a victim in the case.

"Gary Stone was a great guy, a great worker. This was a tragic accident," Fischer said.

The law Palin signed also will extend the pardon process, requiring it to take at least 120 days. In the case of Whitewater, the application was filed on Sept. 25, 66 days before it was granted.

State workplace safety investigators who looked into the case turned over their findings to state prosecutors, who brought charges of criminally negligent homicide against Fischer and Whitewater.

Fischer pled guilty on Whitewater's behalf in exchange for the charge against him being dropped.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Clark, in his sentencing memorandum for the judge, said the blame rested with Fischer and the company.

"The sole owner, Thom Fischer, was well aware of the risks and did not ensure that the necessary steps were taken to avoid the fatality," wrote Clark.

The avalanche expert initially hired by Whitewater gave him a written report warning that an avalanche at the site would be "unsurvivable," and Clark said Whitewater placed at risk not only his entire crew but potential rescuers as well.

"Most of the blame lies with his laissez-faire attitude toward worker safety," he said.

The avalanche expert recommended hiring a full-time specialist to inform crews of when it was too risky to work and using explosives dropped by helicopter to lessen the danger.

Clark also was dismissive of Whitewater's claims about trying to protect its workers. The company, he said, promised to develop a plan to protect them and did not. It did not hire an avalanche expert that it promised to hire.

Whitewater "feigned an interest in the safety of its workers," he said.

Fischer said the court's sentencing memorandum was biased, and was simply one branch of state government trying to protect another. Another effort in the Legislature would expand ethics legislation to include the issuance of pardons.

Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, wants to require governors issuing pardons to certify to the attorney general whether they have personal or financial ties to someone being pardoned.

Lynn said he has no information to suggest that Murkowski pardoned Whitewater because of financial ties to the company. Fischer said he has no financial ties with Murkowski.

"This is not about the last governor," Lynn said. "This is about future governors."

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