Panel: GOP didn't break ethics code

Closed-door meeting by majority did have 'appearance of impropriety,' committee says

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

Republican-led House majority members did not violate the legislative ethics code when they met behind closed doors to discuss a vote on funding a senior citizens program, an ethics panel decided.

However, the meeting, coupled with a contract majority members signed promising to vote with their leadership on budget and procedural matters, created an appearance of impropriety, the panel said.

The committee raised concerns about the existence of such a contract.

"The contract has broad effect on votes taken on the House floor as well as in legislative committees," the House Subcommittee of the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics wrote.

An Anchorage citizen, Bonita Geary, filed the complaint in February about a Jan. 12 closed meeting of the 28-member House majority caucus. The decision was released Thursday.

Geary said she's disappointed with the decision.

"I mean basically they said it was the appearance of impropriety and I think it was more than that," Geary said. "I think the leadership told the people how to vote, and there was probably some discussion, and I think the discussion should be on the floor in an open meeting so we know what the issues are."

House Rules Committee Chairman Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said he was not surprised at the decision.

"The majority caucus acted under the allowable exceptions to the law," Rokeberg said.

State law allows caucuses to meet behind closed doors to discuss political strategy.

The meeting in question happened after Democratic lawmakers called for a joint session of the House and Senate to override Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski's veto of funding for the senior citizen longevity bonus program.

Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, called for a break in the House floor session, and the caucus went into House Speaker Pete Kott's office for a private meeting.

When legislators returned to the floor, all majority members except Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, voted against the Democrats' motion.

Lynn was later stripped of his chairmanship of the House Special Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs for voting with the Democrats.

Geary's complaint said the vote on the House floor indicated that an agreement had been reached in the closed meeting and that a vote may have been taken out of the public eye.

In its written order, the ethics subcommittee said it was unable to determine precisely if an actual vote was taken during the closed meeting.

However, the panel noted, several people who attended the closed meeting said a determination was made that a vote on whether to hold a veto override session was a "procedural" question.

That meant all majority members were required to vote against the motion.

That's because members of the House majority caucus sign a contract stating that they "recognize the requirement" to vote with the caucus on procedural matters and to vote "yes" on all final budget bills on the House floor.

In light of that contract, the panel said, "the decision that the issue was 'procedural' was therefore tantamount to a vote on the underlying issue."

Rokeberg defended the contract, saying it's necessary to have majority members support the leadership on procedural matters to ensure an orderly flow of business, given that more than 1,000 pieces of legislation were introduced in the past two years.

"If we weren't able to control our calendar and how we are able to conduct business, it would be difficult to accomplish anything," Rokeberg said.

The subcommittee also said the abrupt retreat to a closed caucus during a legislative floor session with no clear purpose stated on the record "leaves observers in the dark as to what is going on."

The panel said leaders should at least make a clear statement on the record that the recess is for a closed caucus as allowed by statute.

Rokeberg said that's not necessary because strategy discussions are the only reason caucuses can be closed.

Revisions to state law in the mid-1990s exempted the Legislature from open meetings rules that cover local governments in Alaska. The law allows caucuses to meet behind closed doors to discuss "political strategy."

Rokeberg said revisions this year will probably mean some caucus meetings in which presentations are made or substantive issues are discussed will be open next year, although a broad political strategy exemption remains.

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