Some officials chafe under ethics reforms

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

Alaska's newly beefed up personal-disclosure laws for public officials may be a violation of their privacy, according to some city-level officeholders.

The state is asking public officials to disclose a lot more details about their personal finances this year in the wake of recent bribery scandals at the state Capitol. Unlike previous years, officials will have to report exactly who paid them money, how much and what for. The reports are due March 15.

Juneau School Board member Mark Choate, a personal injury lawyer by day, said he doesn't think he can comply with the new rules without violating his clients' expectations of privacy.

He said he plans on asking the Alaska Public Offices Commission, which oversees financial disclosures for public officials in Alaska, for an exemption from some of the new rules.

Other municipal leaders are worried that disclosing detailed financial information could be bad for business, according to Jeremy Woodrow, a communications coordinator for the Alaska Municipal League. He said most municipal officeholders don't get paid for their public work and need private jobs to support themselves.

Making their sensitive business information public could give competitors an unfair leg up, Woodrow said. He added that the new laws could make it harder to find willing public servants.

"Many of our members are concerned," Woodrow said. "It can affect whether someone would want to run for public office or not."

The Alaska Municipal League passed a resolution last year calling on the state Legislature to change the new laws so that they are more friendly to city officials.

Christina Ellingson, an assistant director at APOC, said her office had been fielding several phone calls lately from public officials who she said they were surprised they had to provide so much personal information this year.

"We're getting a lot of calls about it," Ellingson said. "There's a lot more detail than there has been in years past."

The new laws require that public officials disclose the names and addresses of any sources of income greater than $1,000 that they or their families receive, and include an exact dollar amount.

Officials are also required to describe the work they perform for clients who pay them more than a grand. A handout produced by APOC says the descriptions must be detailed, and one-word answers such as "consultant" won't cut it.

Doctors are exempted from having to disclose information about their clients, as are public officials who provide legal services to minors or spouses who have sought legal work without a parent or spouse's knowledge.

Choate, who sues insurance companies on behalf of private individuals, said the current exemptions are too narrow and the nature of his work is sensitive enough to warrant an exemption. He said his clients expect that their legal business will not become part of the public record.

"In my world, everyone that comes to me is hurt," Choate said. "It's almost always very private."

He added that he understands the new law's intent, but doesn't think it merits betraying his clients' trust.

"It invades a higher duty on my part," Choate said.

In previous years, officials only had to name the source of income for more than $5,000 and were not required to give detailed descriptions of the types of work performed.

But those requirements were deemed inadequate by lawmakers last year after investigations into oil industry influence in Alaska government resulted in several elected officials facing corruption charges.

"You'd be pretty hard put not to understand the need for more information," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, a supporter of some of the new disclosure laws.

Kerttula, who is also an attorney, said she understood Choate's point and said more work could be needed to find the right balance between open government and privacy concerns.

"But boy, the sad reality is, we probably need to be very careful and get as much information as we can," Kerttula said.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or e-mail

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