Measure would prevent talk of ethics complaints

Critics say stifling of discussion violates right to free speech

Posted: Friday, May 06, 2005

The Senate majority rejected a bid by Democrats Thursday to strike a provision in two ethics bills allowing the attorney general to fine people who tell anyone that they've filed or intend to file an ethics complaint against a public official.

The provision would allow a civil fine up to $5,000.

It's a revision from previous language in the bills that would have made talking about an ethics filing a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, filed the bills after former U.S. Attorney Robert Bundy, retained by the governor's office, issued a report on questionable ethical behavior by then-Attorney General Gregg Renkes.

Seekins' Senate Bill 186 applies to the executive branch, and a similar bill, Senate Bill 187, applies to members of the Legislature.

The bills would require absolute confidentiality of ethics proceedings by all parties involved unless the resolution is made public by state authorities or a superior court.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, charged that the provision violates the First Amendment and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

He offered amendments to strike the provision in both bills.

"This nation was born in dissent. ... That's how we became a nation," French said.

Seekins said people who file ethics complaints should be bound by the same confidentiality requirements that now bind the state's ethics investigators.

He said current state law allows people in Alaska to use ethics complaints as a "political hatchet" that may satisfy its purpose as soon as it appears on the news.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, responded that the new rule wouldn't prevent bad publicity for public officials over their ethics. It just threatens private citizens.

"If I tell my wife that I am going to file an ethics complaint, I may be subject to a $5,000 fine," he said.

"Sometimes the most difficult thing that a citizen can do is speak ill of somebody in power. ... Now we are going to make it very expensive for them to do that," Elton said.

After debate, the Senate rejected French's amendments, 8-11, along party lines.

The bills have not yet received a final Senate vote but the Senate has finished taking amendments on the bills.

The bills limit public officials from owning stock in a company with which they are involved on state business to 1 percent of the company's total value or $10,000.

French and House Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, also have ethics reform legislation lingering in committee.

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