Some legislators say more work is needed on ethics

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2008

Two ethics bills inched closer toward becoming law Saturday, as a legislative session that some lawmakers and other political watchers say has been too light on ethical reform draws to a close.

A bill that would extend the number of years the Alaska Public Offices Commission had to dole out punishments for political crimes from one year to five years passed out of House committee. And a bill that would, in part, limit some political fundraising during legislative sessions and beef up fines for withholding some financial disclosures was approved by the House.

But overall, ethical reforms bills have had a tough row to hoe this session, according to Joyce Anderson, an administrator with the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics, the Legislature's own watchdog group.

"I just feel like there's been stumbling blocks along the way and I'm not sure why," she said.

Just two years after FBI officials raided half a dozen legislator's offices that led to the conviction of three lawmakers for political corruption, legislators need to make efforts to regain the public's trust, according to Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. Though lawmakers tightened up ethics laws during last year's session, Gara said there's still more work to be done.

"I think the ethics measures that are in the Legislature this year are very important," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. "And if the Legislature doesn't take them seriously, then the public is not going to take the Legislature seriously."

Legislation on allowing lawmakers to abstain from voting on matters where there may be a conflict of interest has made little progress in this session. Under current legislative procedures, lawmakers can be forced to vote on legislation, even if there's a clear conflict of interest.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said it's "objectionable" that bills confronting that issue are stuck in committees.

"There needs to be a way for legislators with a real conflict of interest not to vote," Gardner said.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said the he has no problem with lawmakers abstaining from voting on bills that would directly put money in their pockets, but said those instances were few and far between and some lawmakers were considering the phrase "conflict of interest" too broadly.

"I don't think you can find a legislator here who truly benefits by the laws that we pass in most cases," Harris said. "And if there is a situation, then they ought not to be allowed to vote."

Harris, who voted for both bills Saturday, added that there was a danger of over-legislating ethics reform to the point that restrictions on public officials became too "tight" and "onerous."

"Pretty soon you're going to get to a point where very few people want to serve," Harris said, adding that "people are either ethical or they're not."

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.



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