Just minutes after former Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, was convicted in his corruption trial, Gov. Sarah Palin gathered with legislative leaders in Anchorage to sign into law a new ethics bill.
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The bill addresses lobbyist, legislative and executive ethics and strengthens financial disclosure rules. Some people don't think it went far enough, however.
Anderson was the first of several legislators to face criminal charges in the last year. His case and FBI raids on the offices of several other legislators and lobbyists brought the Legislature's ethical climate to the top of the state's agenda.
Palin on Monday signed House Bill 109, calling it "a good first step" in ensuring Alaskans can trust state government.
The bill includes a host of new rules for the legislative and executive branches of government. One new requirement is that lobbyists must report buying legislators meals any time they cost more than $15. Another bars executive branch officials from having significant financial stakes in companies they deal with in their jobs.
House Bill 109 improves laws affecting lobbyists by:
Requiring ethics training for lobbyists and their employers.
Increasing restrictions on lobbyists' gifts.
Barring persons with certain felony convictions from lobbying.
Barring spouses and domestic partners of legislators from lobbying for pay.
Prohibiting certain high-level executive branch officials from lobbying for one year after leaving those positions.
Improves disclosure laws by:
Requiring electronic filing of campaign and financial disclosures.
Requiring legislators and legislative employees to disclose all boards on which they serve.
Requiring final financial disclosures from legislators, public officials and others within 90 days of leaving office.
Requiring more details in financial disclosures.
Requiring members of more executive branch boards to file financial disclosures.
Improves executive branch ethics laws by:
Increasing requirements for public officials' blind trusts.
Specifying when a financial interest in a business is insignificant.
Increasing restrictions on employment after leaving service in the executive branch.
Barring political use of state aircraft except when that use is incidental.
Requiring the governor, before granting executive clemency, to disclose any interest in the matter and obtain an ethics determination from the attorney general.
Improves legislative ethics laws by:
Requiring ethics training.
Increasing restrictions on gifts legislators and legislative employees may accept.
Prohibiting legislators from receiving outside compensation for legislative, administrative or political work.
Making it a crime for public servants not to report bribery they know about.
Prohibiting agreements to exchange campaign contributions to elected officials or candidates for changing their votes or positions on a matter.
Providing for forfeiture of certain pension contributions when an official is convicted of a felony such as bribery in connection with official duties.
Source: Office of the Governor
The bill attempts to regulate conflicts of interest in several areas, including controversial "consulting" contracts through which some legislators allegedly were paid bribes.
Federal prosecutors said Anderson had a "sham" consulting contract with VECO Corp. for which he did no work. Now legislators with consulting contracts will have to report what work they did, how many hours and how much they were paid for it.
What House Bill 109 didn't do is stop legislators from voting on matters in which they have personal stakes, said Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau. She advocated to include that in the bill, but it did not make it into the final version.
"Where there is a great financial gain for a vote on a bill, you should not be allowed to vote on that bill," she said.
Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, chaired the House's State Affairs Committee, where he worked with Doll drafting the bill.
He credited the new governor, who campaigned on ethics, for providing the leadership that got the Legislature to act.
"She's a breath of fresh air," he said.
Among things the bill does is close what became known as the "Renkes loophole." Former Attorney General Gregg Renkes was representing the state several years ago in negotiations involving a coal company, while owning more than $100,000 in stock in the company.
An administration review cleared Renkes of any criminal wrongdoing, saying it was not clear from the law that the amount of money would have presented a conflict of interest.
The new law bars involvement when more than $5,000 is involved, legislators said.
Monday's bill signing was held at the offices of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, which will implement many of the new rules.
"APOC performs a vital service to Alaskans," Palin said.
Anderson was accused by prosecutors of having created a fake company through which a lobbyist friend hid from APOC the bribe money he was getting paid.
Palin said the commission, with a new investigator the Legislature approved this year, would be better able to follow through on some of the issues now worrying Alaskans about their state government.
One aspect of the bill being closely watched in some quarters in Juneau would require lobbyists to file a public report whenever they spend more than $15 on a meal for a legislator.
That concerns some Juneau restaurateurs, who fear that lobbyists will stop taking legislators to dinner if they have to report it.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, a restaurant owner himself, said he was concerned about his restaurant colleagues in Juneau. But the value of having a bright line between what's right and wrong for lobbyists is very important, he said.
"I'm sure they'll all work through that," he said.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the driving forces behind ethics reform in that body, said the bill signed by Palin would "close a shameful chapter in Alaska's political history."
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