Lawmakers disclose conflicts of interest, but vote anyway

Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2007

A funny thing happened to Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, one day on the floor of the House of Representatives. The subject of taxing the oil industry came up during discussion of a program that taxes the oil industry for spill response and prevention.

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"I was hoping to avoid the discussion of oil taxes," said Meyer, one of the most influential members of the House - and an employee of ConocoPhillips Co., one of the largest oil company taxpayers in Alaska.

"But since it has come up, I would like to put it on the record that I have a conflict of interest and be excused from voting."

What happened next was predictable. It happens regularly in the Alaska Legislature - and in no other legislature in the country.

Other representatives objected to Meyer's being excused, and House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, told Meyer he wouldn't be excused from the discussion and the vote.

"I think you are going to have to talk about it, and vote," Harris said.

That's standard operating procedure in the Alaska Legislature. Conflict of interest isn't just tolerated. In some cases it is required.

Alaska's "citizen legislators" have numerous conflicts of interest, and few checks on using their power as elected officials to benefit themselves or their employers.

Web links

The Juneau Empire is posting scanned copies of 2006 Alaska legislative and executive financial disclosures, filed March 15. To see the documents in PDF format, visit http://aklegislature.com/disclosures/2007LegDisclosures.shtml.

Several legislative leaders say conflicts of interest are inherent in having a citizens' legislature, and that while legislators bring conflicts of interest with them to Juneau, they also bring valuable community connections as well.

Some set their own personal boundaries, and limit what they'll do to benefit themselves or their employers.

After disclosing his conflicts, Meyer set about convincing the House not to raise taxes on his employer. Using charts and graphs, Meyer explained why he believed a tax increase wasn't in the state's interest, and the tax increase proposal was pulled. He knew the issue well, as he had sponsored the bill.

Meyer said that even when he advocates doing something that is in ConocoPhillip's interest, he's doing it because it is in the state's interest.

Meyer said in his case he takes a leave of absence from his job as a procurement analyst with ConocoPhillips when he's serving in Juneau.

"I totally divorce myself from the company when I'm down here," he said.

Meyer has been particularly prominent this year, because of his position as co-chairman of the House Finance Committee at a time when the signature piece of legislation this year is Gov. Sarah Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

Palin said there is nothing improper about Meyer's role in the process.

"He is following the rules that are in place today," she said.

Friday, at a press conference after AGIA passed the House and Senate, Meyer appeared with Palin at a celebratory press conference, but declined an opportunity to speak.

An ongoing ethical issue

The 25th Alaska Legislature began in January with a mandatory day-long ethics review in which all 60 members gathered in the neighboring Terry Miller Building to talk over ethical issues with consultant Michael Josephson, an ethics expert with the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

The institute advises elected officials and others on how to deal with ethical dilemmas, and was brought in from California by the Legislature after FBI agents raided the offices of six legislators last year and a seventh was indicted.Josephson was surprised to learn that Alaska legislators with conflicts of interest not only voted, but were required to do so."

"You are unique in this, I don't know of another state that has this, there may be one or two others," he said.

He said public officials considering whether to recuse themselves should consider the public appearance.

"I think the test is, would a reasonable, fair-minded person think that (conflict) might affect your judgment," he said.

For example, Josephson said, if you were a employee of a pharmaceutical company and a bill setting drug prices was being considered, that could affect company profits. A reasonable person might think you'd be under pressure to vote a specific way, he said.

"When in doubt, recuse. It's simply a better way to protect public trust," he said.

Fighting conflict with disclosure

Several legislators said that their other check on conflict of interest is disclosure, and they make it clear when they have a personal financial stake in issues.

Meyer said he rarely heard from constituents who objected to ConocoPhillips or other conflict matters, but some do tell him that he shouldn't be voting on some issues.

"Especially the ones who disagree with me," he said.

Meyer said he makes it clear to his constituents during his campaigns that he works for the company.

"They know I come from an oil industry background," he said.

In the days before Palin's AGIA bill reached the floor of the House, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, called upon Republicans to refrain from objecting if Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, asked to be excused from voting. Kohring was recently indicted on charges of accepting bribes from an oil company.

Lawmakers objecting to recusal do so verbally, and their objections are not recorded by name in the House and Senate journals, giving their actions anonymity.

Kohring avoided the issue on Friday's AGIA vote as he left the floor during the vote, despite not having an excused absence.

"There were some things he had to take care of," said Jim Pound, a member of Kohring's staff.

The House leadership had not requested Kohring to step aside, said Will Vandergriff, spokesman for the House Republicans.

An issue of personal integrity

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, said voters need to trust their lawmakers. He expressed displeasure with fellow legislators who allegedly "for an insignificant amount of money gave away the state's sovereignty."

He said he's as likely to vote against his financial interest as he is for it, and he is wealthy enough to be able to do so.

"There's nothing of value out there that could compromise me," he said.

In January, Josephson recommended that the legislators consider changing their internal rules so that they are not placed in conflicts.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said some members of the Democratic caucus urged tougher conflict of interest rules be adopted after Josephson's talk. Her caucus never actually proposed such rules, acknowledged the House Democratic leader.

"Maybe what we need to do is to determine a degree of conflict, and what would be an improper level," she said.

Palin praised the Legislature's ethics reform package this year, but said it was only a "good first step."

Early on she proposed toughening ethics rules for both the executive branch and the legislative branch, but said she found legislators resistant to her having a role in how the Legislature operates.

"They said, `You clean up your house, we're going to concentrate on the legislative branch,'" Palin said.

There's still more to do to, but Palin expressed confidence it will be done.

"I've taken them at their word that they want to clean up loopholes and conflict of interest," she said.

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



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