Ethics bill leaves out provision for bribery

Criminal-code issues should be dealt with separately, critics say

Posted: Friday, February 23, 2007

Debate opened Thursday on a comprehensive ethics reform bill with a failed effort to include criminal penalties for lawmakers who trade votes for campaign contributions.

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Amendment proponents were hoping to hitch a ride on a bill with legs, but opponents said the bribery measure did not belong in an ethics bill that deals with civil code, adding they would consider supporting separate legislation.

The omnibus bill, crafted by a three-person subcommittee over the course of four meetings, had its first hearing before the House State Affairs Committee.

Twelve separate ethics measures have been incorporated into Gov. Sarah Palin's original ethics bill. So far, 27 proposed changes are before the committee.

Committee Chairman Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he wanted to avoid getting bogged down in details but have the committee answer basic policy questions before moving the bill onto the Judiciary Committee.

"I want to avoid paralysis by analysis," Lynn said.

Still, after introduction of the bill, day one was devoted almost entirely to one failed amendment: a proposal from eight House Democrats that would make it a felony crime for a lawmaker to allow a campaign contributor to sway their position on a matter before the Legislature.

The issue is related to a federal case against former Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, who was indicted in early December on charges that included extortion, money laundering and bribery.

Federal authorities claim Anderson took bribes from an undercover FBI informant in exchange for using his influence in the Legislature on behalf of a corrections company.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, is the prime sponsor of the bribery bill which was heard once in early February then held in committee.

He argued for incorporating the measure into the ethics package, an issue he said was on the forefront of the public's mind.

"I think you have to send the message that we are going to be as tough on bribery as the federal government is," Gara said.

Gara added that he expected the ethics legislation to move quickly, but felt his measure should move just as fast.

Republicans on the committee assured Gara they were taking the issue seriously.

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he had concerns with some of the measure's language and that it dealt with the criminal code instead of the ethics infractions addressed in the rest of the bill.

Coghill said he would consider co-sponsoring the separate bribery bill if his concerns could be addressed in the judiciary committee.

"But, at this point, I just so strongly feel that we should not put this in with the civil code issues," Coghill said.

Rep. Bob Roses, R-Anchorage, supported Gara's concept and would push for a committee discussion. He also discounted any notion that the bill lacked support because it was introduced by members of the Democratic minority.

Committee member Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, argued the addition of the bribery provision was appropriate.

"This may be the only opportunity to get this legislation passed. This bill is a bill that is moving," Gruenberg said, referring to the ethics omnibus package. "This is the time for this committee to exercise its discretion and do the right thing."

The amendment failed on a 4-3 vote.

The committee also began taking testimony on one of the governor's amendments regarding electronic filing of candidates' campaign reports.

The state affairs subcommittee, arguing that many communities do not have reliable Internet access, revised the governor's bill to cover just candidates for the offices of governor and lieutenant governor.

Assistant Attorney General David Jones said the governor was proposing a compromise that would grant exceptions, exempt municipal candidates and allow for a 2009 effective date to give filers and the public time to get comfortable with the system.

The committee will take up the issue again on Tuesday. Lynn warned members to expect Saturday meetings as well to move the legislation along quickly.

The broad-ranging measure also covers financial disclosure requirements for candidates, lawmakers and public officials; ethics training for lawmakers and conflicts of interests within the executive branch. It also bars gifts from lobbyists, lobbying by lawmakers' spouses and institutes a one-year ban on lobbying by former policy makers and department heads.

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