Alaska editorial: Major ethics legislation needed in light of scandal

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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The worst scandal in Alaska's modern political history keeps spreading, and there is almost surely more to come.

It's a good thing so many of the corruption investigation's targets have already left the Legislature. Otherwise, the Capitol might need to be checked by a Hazmat team and then flushed out with a fire hose.

Two of the state's most influential lobbyists and most generous campaign cash distributors: guilty.

This year's chairman of the House Oil and Gas Committee: indicted.

A former speaker of the House: indicted.

Two other former lawmakers: indicted.

Next up: Last year's Senate president. Ben Stevens is clearly in the cross hairs, unindicted and unnamed so far. But he's the only one who fits the prosecutors' description of a senator collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars for no-work "consulting" contracts.

And what was the payoff from the illicit money the admittedly guilty influence-buyers handed out?

Maybe as much as $1 billion. That's how much more money hardliners wanted to extract from the oil industry in last year's oil tax revision.

This is a shameful moment in Alaska history. The damage to public trust and the integrity of Alaska's government will take years to repair.

Lawmakers can start the repair job by swiftly passing a strong ethics bill covering both the Legislature and the executive branch. This is work that could have, and should have, been finished weeks ago.

Nevertheless, mindless partisanship has so far prevented final action. The House leadership apparently doesn't care to recognize that the Senate majority is a bipartisan organization and will occasionally advance bills with Democratic prime sponsors. The Senate has bowed to practicality and begun working on the House version of the bill, even though the Senate passed its version first.

What's important, of course, is not who went first or who gets credit. What's important is dealing with the stain of corruption now spreading across the Alaska Legislature.

Past scandals have highlighted major loopholes in Alaska's ethics laws. The VECO scandal features the Ben Stevens loophole, which lets legislators take fat consulting contracts without disclosing what work they are supposed to do for the money.

The Gregg Renkes loophole allows executive officials to beat conflict of interest charges because the law doesn't define what level of investment creates a conflict.

The "legislator as lobbyist" loophole lets lawmakers represent clients for pay in front of state agencies.

And some legislators skip out on financial disclosures for their last year in office because the law doesn't clearly demand that they file the report, which is due after they leave office.

Any serious ethics reform has to close those loopholes. Any serious effort to clean up Juneau has to start here.

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