Lawsuit says staff bonuses unethical

Former lawmakers ask state court to declare legislative bonuses illegal

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2005

Four former state lawmakers filed a lawsuit Thursday, contending that four legislative staff members and a building manager have received $80,000 total in improper bonuses since 2001.

The lawsuit asks the Juneau Superior Court to declare the bonuses illegal under the Legislative Ethics Code and require the recipients to repay the state.

"If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't do it because it sends a signal that one staff is better than another," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.

Harris said his intent was to reward aides who put in long hours at the Capitol.

He is one of three Republican legislators who sought the bonuses for aides, along with former Rep. Eldon Mulder and current Sen. Gene Therriault, the lawsuit said.

Beginning in 2001, bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 were paid to four legislative aides and a building manager for the Legislative Affairs Agency. The bonuses were approved by Legislative Affairs Director Pam Varni, who declined to comment Thursday.

The four plaintiffs in the case - Niilo Koponen of Fairbanks, Mike Miller of Juneau, Katherine Hurley of Wasilla and Kay Brown of Anchorage - are Democrats and former legislators.

Harris was co-chairman of the House Finance Committee in 2003 and 2004, when he gave his chief of staff Tom Wright two bonuses, each worth $10,000. Harris also gave his aide Matt Gill a $10,000 bonus in 2003. Wright earned just under $70,000 in salary both years and Gill earned just under $60,000.

Mulder, a former Anchorage lawmaker who served as co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, paid his chief of staff, Dennis DeWitt, a $10,000 bonus in 2001 and $20,000 in 2002. Those two years DeWitt earned a combined salary of $127,101. DeWitt now works as a special assistant to Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Therriault, who served as Senate president in 2003 and 2004, gave a $15,000 bonus to his chief of staff, Joseph Balash. Like Harris, Therriault said the bonus was meant to compensate for working long hours.

"A lot of times we would leave the office and it was just us in the building," Therriault said, describing the late nights spent working on legislative issues.

He also said Balash, who earned $57,416 in salary in 2004, had been offered jobs for much higher pay in the private sector and within the administration.

Therriault, of North Pole, said the bonus was "nowhere close to the additional money he would have made." He said there is a growing concern in the Legislature about staff pay and retention.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are Wright, Gill, DeWitt, Balash, building manager Don Johnston, Varni and her deputy director, Karla Schofield.

Harris and Therriault contend the lawsuit is politically motivated.

Miller, a Democratic lawmaker from Juneau from 1971 to 1986, denied it.

"The action would have been just as illegal no matter what our affiliation was," he said. "I can't say that any of us are politically involved these days."

He said Republican staff should be angry about the bonuses too.

"Most of the chairmen and leadership of the party didn't get in on this gravy train," he said.

Juneau attorney Douglas Mertz is representing the former legislators in the case. He said the lawsuit has been filed as a public-interest-litigant lawsuit, meaning if the plaintiffs win, the state will pay their attorney fees.

Mertz provided The Associated Press with a February legal opinion from the state Legislative Affairs Agency that said the bonuses might have violated the Legislative Ethics Code "by using funds for the private benefit of a legislative employee."

The opinion was addressed to Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

Legislative Counsel Barbara Craver would not confirm the existence of the opinion and said if it did exist, it would be confidential.

Elton would not say whether he had spoken to Mertz or provided him with the legal opinion. He acknowledged that he knew Mertz had obtained a copy of the opinion.

"Those requests are supposed to be confidential," Elton said. "If I wanted to file a lawsuit I would have filed a lawsuit."

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