Committee's secrecy mandate makes assessing effectiveness difficult

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2007

It's no surprise to many that the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics hasn't pursued the corruption allegations now under federal investigation.

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The committee is made up of representatives of both major political parties in the Alaska Legislature, as well as citizen members. The Republican Party's two representatives on the committee last year were Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau.

Weyhrauch was indicted in May on several federal bribery and extortion charges; Stevens has been described in some detail in court documents as allegedly participating in a bribery scheme, but has not been indicted. Both left the Legislature after deciding not to run for re-election.

During last year's negotiations, federal prosecutors say numerous legislators were bribed by oil field services company VECO Corp. to favor the big oil companies' preferred pipeline plan.

Both the executive and judicial branches of government have taken a hands-off approach to policing the Legislature, saying that is up to the Legislature itself.

"It's very difficult to ask any legislature to self-police," said Ethan Berkowitz, former House minority leader and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor last year.

Former Attorney General Bruce Botelho, now Juneau's mayor, said the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics was "defanged" several years ago by legislators who didn't want anyone to have the ability to pass judgment on their actions. When committee members tried to enforce public meetings law, legislators curbed the authority of the committee.

Until recently, the committee had only one part-time staff member, Joyce Anderson. The Legislature has added temporary part-time staff to work with Anderson.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the office's staffing has been far from adequate.

"She does a great job. It's not her," the legislator said.

Both the Select Committee and APOC are being asked to do more than they have staffing for, Kerttula said.

"Common sense says they need more staff," she said. "Both APOC and the ethics committee need to have better budgets and more investigators."

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