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Ethics reforms continue after indictments

Lawmaker says it is imperative Legislature acts during this session

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007

The Alaska Legislature is on the verge of adopting sweeping ethics reforms, following the state Senate's adoption of an omnibus ethics package this week.

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It was given preliminary approval Wednesday, and is expected to be finalized today.

The bill will then return the House of Representatives, where ethics leaders are predicting the House will agree with the Senate's changes and quickly send the bill onto the governor.

Anchorage Republican Bob Lynn, chairman of the House's State Affairs Committee, has been a leader on ethics reform in the House. He said it was imperative the Legislature act this session.

"People need to trust the people they elect to public office," he said.

A week ago, a House committee chairman was arrested in corruption charges, and three other former members and two oil industry executives have been indicted as well. The two executives pleaded guilty.

Senators voted unanimously to pass the 43-page measure, which contains about two dozen provisions tightening the rules for the Legislature, the executive branch and lobbyists.

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, chairman of the House's Rules Committee and one of the drafters of the ethics package, predicted the House would agree to the version adopted by the Senate.

Some of the things the Senate put in the bill "make me shiver," Coghill said, but not enough to vote against the bill or force it to a conference committee.

"I think that debate had been debated enough," he said.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, warned that the new rules were not likely to change anyone's behavior.

"It probably will not make an honest person dishonest. It probably will not make a dishonest person honest," French said. "But it matters to the public that we take some action. It matters to the public that we close these loopholes and stand up and say there's a problem, let's fix it."

As the Senate considered about half a dozen amendments, lawmakers often alluded to the recent bribery and extortion indictments of one current and two former lawmakers related to dealings with VECO Corp. over efforts last year to change the state's oil and gas tax and to approve a contract for a natural gas pipeline.

Some senators Wednesday wondered if they weren't running scared because of the federal indictments.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, objected to a proposal to prohibit lawmakers from accepting any work outside their expertise. He said he feared the language was too broad and could prohibit even "teaching elder hostel classes."

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said lawmakers should not be reactionary, "but we see in the indictments people paid for work that they didn't do much for or have experience in."

That amendment failed. But the Senate did make over a dozen changes to the House bill, including a requirement that lobbyists report any meal or drinks worth more than $15 they buy a lawmaker .

The Senate also agreed to prohibit lobbying by anyone convicted of a felony when the crime involved a "moral wrong." Coghill said he didn't like that provision, but could live with it.

The measure before the Senate was the House omnibus package first proposed by Gov. Sarah Palin, into which numerous House bills were rolled, including ones by Lynn and Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez. The two bodies appeared to be at an impasse over whose bills would serve as the main vehicle for the legislation.

Though the Senate bills should have taken precedence, French said the Senate decided to break protocol rather than hold up important legislation.

With the impasse broken, the bill moved quickly to the floor, where it passed 20-0.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, asked for reconsideration, saying he wanted to make sure none of the amendments had any technical problems that needed to be fixed. Reconsideration is scheduled to be taken up today. Action by the House could come as soon as Saturday.

The measure is House Bill 109.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com. He and the Associated Press contributed to this report.



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