LeDoux walks out to avoid an ethical conflict

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2008

Some Alaska legislators have found a way to avoid ethical conflicts, but it's raising some hackles at the Capitol.

Alaska legislators use a unique combination of rules and tradition that not only allows them to vote but requires them to vote, even when they have clear conflicts of interest.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, walked off the House floor this week rather than be forced to cast a vote in which she had a conflict of interest. That was against the rules, but nobody challenged her on it.

"People should not be voting when they've got conflicts of interest," she said. "Many members of (the House) just don't get it."

Under legislative rules, a member is required to vote unless every other member agrees to their being allowed to abstain from voting. Some members object to every abstention request, so they know they'll get to vote when issues in which they have a personal financial stake come up.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, a commercial fisherman, said he objects when members such as Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, ask to abstain from voting on oil tax issues. Meyer works as a procurement analyst for ConocoPhillips, the state's largest oil company, when not serving in the Legislature.

In exchange, Thomas has said he hopes Meyer or others will object to his abstaining on fishing issues, and he'll be allowed to vote.

It's a practice that has come under increasing criticism lately, with LeDoux becoming more confrontational on the issue, and even challenging powerful members of her own party on the issue.

LeDoux faced getting kicked out of the House Majority Caucus when she challenged a ruling by House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, on voting by those with ties to the oil industry, such as Meyer, on a crucial oil tax bill last fall. LeDoux was trying to get on the record the names of those who were encouraging voting despite a conflict of interest. She backed down in that instance.

Tuesday, LeDoux asked that she herself be excused from voting on a bill, and found herself clashing again with members of her own party.

LeDoux is running for U.S. Congress against U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. The Alaska House of Representatives this week passed a bill extending the current ban on legislators raising legislative campaign money during sessions to other municipal, statewide and federal races as well.

The bill was sponsored by Meyer.

"For the sake of the reputation of the institution, we need to get rid of all political fundraising inside the capital," he said.

LeDoux said the bill would target her, and only her, and asked that she be excused from voting.

Seventeen legislators, including Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, cast votes barring her from abstaining.

"The question is, when do you have the right to excuse yourself from a vote," he said.

Meyer's bill applied to everyone, not just LeDoux, he said.

"I didn't feel it rose to a place where she had a personal conflict," he said.

The bill wouldn't take effect until next year, but LeDoux has already responded to criticism by pledging not to raise money during the current session, after it became a campaign issue.

"I thought there couldn't have been a more clear conflict of interest," she said.

Seventeen legislators, all Republicans, voted to require LeDoux to vote. Under House rules, only one vote was needed to require her to vote.

LeDoux then responded by walking off the floor. Had any legislator issued a "call on the House," every legislator without an excused absence would have been required to appear, with Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Stambaugh charged with retrieving any reluctant representatives.

"If it was so important that I vote, why didn't they put a call on the House?" LeDoux asked later. "What were they trying to prove by simply not letting me be excused?"

Coghill said he didn't want to escalate the incident.

"I didn't want to personally badger her," he said.

A similar tactic was used last year when former Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, was faced with a conflict issue. Just days after being indicted on charges of accepting oil industry bribes, Gov. Sarah Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, opposed by the industry, reached the House floor for a final vote.

Kohring simply didn't show for the vote, and no one then placed a call on the House. LeDoux said House members didn't push the issue then for political reasons.

"They didn't want a precedent to be set that people would be excused from voting," she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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