Some ethics reform bills cast wide net

Efforts to clean up state politics aim to reel in small fish

Posted: Monday, March 19, 2007

While Gov. Sarah Palin, the state House of Representatives and the Senate work on major ethics reform, some lawmakers are pushing to fix situations that few knew were broken.

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For Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, the top "reform" issue is fringe candidates for state office who get away without revealing who - if anyone - is donating to their little-known campaigns.

"It's simply a matter of full and open disclosure if you are going to run for statewide office," Neuman said.

His bill would remove an exemption from filing disclosure reports for some candidates who raise and spend less than $5,000.

His effort, House Bill 5, was introduced early and has been wrapped into the combined House ethics bill that is working its way through the committee process.

Neuman said he couldn't identify any candidates who have misused the exemption, or exactly what prompted him to introduce the bill.

"I was laying in bed one night and I thought, by God, I think that would be a good thing to do," Neuman said.

"Five thousand dollars is a lot of money to be able to receive and not have any accountability for it," Neuman said.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said he supports Neuman's bill.

"Isn't that what everybody's calling for, full disclosure, full transparency?" he said.

Abuse of exemption has not, to her knowledge, been a problem in Alaska, said Brooke Miles, executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

One place where the issue has come up was in a federal race, where Neuman's bill wouldn't apply.

That issue involved ethics watchdog Ray Metcalfe, a former Republican legislator who had brought ethics complaints about then-Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage. Stevens was recently fined by the Alaska Public Offices Commission for failing to report tens of thousands of dollars in outside income.

At a commission hearing, Stevens accused Metcalfe of using a federal exemption to avoid reporting his donors in a run for U.S. Congress.

Anchorage's KTUU-TV reported that Stevens went "toe to toe" with Metcalfe and accused him of failing to report his own contributions.

"You skirted the rules by filing exempt, didn't you," Stevens asked. "Who's paying you, Ray?"

Metcalfe later told the Empire that he had no contributors, and he paid the $100 filing fee himself. He lost the race.

Stevens did not run for re-election. He was unavailable for comment.

Another bill working though the House of Representatives would require additional disclosure from groups called "non-group entities" under state campaign finance regulations.

The only group in that category is the Alaska Conservation Voters, the political arm of Alaska Conservation Alliance.

Kate Troll, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Voters, said she had no idea what was behind the bill.

"We're as puzzled as anyone as to why we're being singled out," she said.

That bill, House Bill 6, was sponsored by Valdez. It too, has been included in the House's ethics bill.

Harris said he's been opposed to some of the environmental groups, but has never had a problem with Alaska Conservation Voters.

"I'm frustrated with the environmental groups that are trying to block the Kensington mine," he said.

At the top of Alaska Conservation Voters' agenda is passage of a bill to support renewable energy, and Harris is a sponsor of that bill.

Ethics bills covering a host of issues large and small are moving in both the House and Senate.

Harris said the omnibus ethics bill in the House is moving "very well," and the governor's bill will be taken up this week.

"We passed two bills out of the Senate, closing two major loopholes," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, a Senate leader on ethics reform. More bills are in the works, he said.

Consideration of the two Senate ethics bills is likely soon in the House, Harris said.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.





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