Candidates face new statute of limitations

Sponsors say tough new rules will deter future wrongdoing, rebuild trust

Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin signed a bill into law Monday closing one of the most prominent holes in Alaska's ethics laws.

House Bill 281 - sponsored by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer - extends the statute of limitations on campaign finance laws from one year to five years.

"We had a problem, and now we've got to rebuild the trust of the people of Alaska," Lynn said.

The bill eventually passed with only a single vote against it, but Lynn said that doesn't mean it was easy to convince legislators to extend the time for which they may face investigation or sanction.

"It was like pushing a bowling ball uphill with a piece of wet spaghetti," he said.

About 10 percent of the Legislature has come under suspicion in the last two years, with some already in federal prison, others on the way or awaiting trial. Others remain under investigation.

The investigations stem from an oil field services company, VECO Corp., working behind the scenes to push the interests of the state's big oil producers in oil tax and gas pipeline negotiations.

Two VECO executives have pleaded guilty to bribing legislators.

With Alaska's statute of limitations expired for campaign finance rules it took federal criminal investigations to expose the wrongdoing.

Now, the state is trying to find ways to get its vast North Slope natural gas reserves to market and needs to have the confidence of the public, Lynn said.

"We are trying to get a gas pipeline, and the people of Alaska must trust the people who are going to vote on the gas pipeline," he said.

Previously, the statute of limitations had been only a year, which Alaska Public Offices Commission staff said limited their ability to investigate and prosecute violations.

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski had tried to abolish APOC. His chief of staff, Juneau lawyer Jim Clark, has pleaded guilty to funneling illegal oil industry contributions to Murkowski's campaign.

"Gov. Murkowski tried to eliminate APOC altogether, and that did not happen. But he did get the statute of limitations brought down," Lynn said.

Despite having the backing of popular Gov. Sarah Palin, who swept into office after promises to restore ethical government to Alaska, the Lynn-Gatto bill had a difficult time winning passage.

Monday at Anchorage's Boney Courthouse, Palin praised the legislators' hard work in getting it passed.

Gatto said the public backed the bill strongly as well.

"The public wants to trust their legislators," he said. "They desperately want to make sure we are trustworthy people."

Despite backing from Lynn and Gatto, both committee chairmen in the Republican-led House Majority, the bill stalled for a long time, and finally passed at the very end of the session with only a single dissenting vote.

That came from Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, who was among legislators whose offices were searched by the FBI and who was named in court testimony by a VECO executive as having taken bribes. He has not been charged and through a spokesman denied wrongdoing.

Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, was among Democrats supporting the Republican-sponsored bill. She said it would help Alaskans who felt betrayed make sure it doesn't happen again.

"Alaskans need to regain confidence in their legislators. It was a pretty severe jolting," she said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, sponsored the bill as well.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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