Empire Editorial: Electing attorney general would serve all Alaskans

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A recent federal bribery and corruption investigation has thrown light on a state legislature that has lost its ethical bearings. Yet it was not one of the three state agencies charged with being government watchdogs that flipped the switch.

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Instead, it was the U.S. Department of Justice that exposed VECO Corp.'s crimes to the public. Two top executives at the oil pipeline service company pleaded guilty to bribery charges, and three former and current Alaska lawmakers are awaiting trial. A fourth legislator was convicted Monday in a separate federal bribery case.

The scandal begs the question, Why did Alaska's ethical watchdogs - the state attorney general's office, the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics and the Alaska Public Offices Commission - fall down on the job? What can be done to ensure this won't happen again?

No one solution will make Alaska's ethical agencies more effective. But there's one practical change that would help immediately, and that is making the state attorney general an elected position.

Currently, the attorney general is appointed by the governor. This gives the executive branch too much power. An attorney general who owes his job to the governor cannot be trusted to act independently of the executive branch.

If it was an elected position, the attorney general could be free to exercise independent judgment because he or she would be held accountable by the voters.

Opponents to making the position elected, including Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, and former Republican Rep. Ray Metcalfe of Anchorage, say to do so would make the post too political.

That argument doesn't wash. The position is already political and partisan because the person in it is appointed by a partisan politician.

Making the attorney general answer to the people rather than the governor creates one more check on the executive branch and the entire power structure.

Only four other states appoint their attorneys general. Alaska should wisely join the majority of states by letting voters decide who will hold this office.

Electing the attorney general is only a small step, but it's one that needs to be taken to keep Alaska officials from abusing their authority.

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