My turn: Playing fast, loose with rules

Legislators with conflicts of interest should abstain

Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Legislators who play fast and loose with their rules are likely to do the same with your rights and resources. Reps. Mike Hawker, Kevin Meyer and Mike Chenault have played fast and loose with the governing rules of the Legislature.

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Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure states: "It is a general rule that no one can vote on a question in which he has a direct personal or pecuniary (financial) interest. In recognition of this maxim, Rule 34(b) of the Alaska Legislature's Uniform Rules advises legislators to declare any conflicts of interest they may have and ask to be allowed to abstain from voting on those issues."

The exception to this rule is that "a member may not be permitted to abstain except upon the unanimous consent of the membership," and, in the Alaska Legislature, members routinely object to these abstentions. When a direct financial conflict exists, however, the abstention request must be agreed to if public trust is to be maintained. That is why the rule exists.

On March 27, Hawker, Meyer and Chenault turned this exception into a loophole just as the House Finance Committee was beginning debate over Gov. Murkowski's ill-fated oil tax revision plan. Go to www.ktoo.org/gavel/schedule.cfm.

The succession of events went as follows:

Rep. Meyer, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, who has worked for the oil industry since 1979 and is employed directly by ConocoPhillips, declared a conflict and asked to be excused from voting. Rep. Chenault, the other co-chairman of the committee, objected to that request and thereby freed Meyer to vote on the issue.

Next, Rep. Hawker declared a conflict. Hawker's wife is employed by ConocoPhillips, and, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, earns a yearly salary of more than $100,000. Rep. Hawker's wife also holds an unspecified number of shares of fully salable and transferable ConocoPhillips stock. Hawker himself is a freelance accountant who has performed contract work for companies directly and indirectly associated with the oil industry.

Rep. Hawker asked to be excused from participation and voting but, again, co-chairman Chenault objected to the request and thereby freed Hawker to do both.

Only after clearing his conflicted colleagues did Chenault reveal that he too has a conflict: His family-owned business, Qwick Construction, is an oil field maintenance company based in Nikiski. In Chenault's own words, he has worked for the majority of Alaska's oil production companies and presently deals with oil and gas issues on the Kenai.

Like a well choreographed Marx Brothers routine, two men with conflicts were pardoned by a man with a conflict - a man who then quipped that he'd pardon himself if no one else would.

This episode might have been funny had it not occurred in arguably the most powerful committee in the Legislature, including the three most influential members of that committee and involving an issue titanic in its potential ramifications to the future of Alaska. Seen in this light, the shenanigans of Hawker, Meyer and Chenault on March 27 were unconscionable.

By turning the conflict declaration process into a farce, Reps. Hawker, Meyer and Chenault removed any assurance that they have the commitment necessary to place the public good above their private interests. In doing so, they undermined the trust that is vital if the public is to believe the prospective oil tax and natural gas pipeline contract are being pursued in a manner consistent with Alaska's laws and constitution, or will produce results that are in the public's best interest.

Speaker John Harris should be mindful of this situation. He is the leader of the Alaska State House of Representatives - the People's House. With this special session being devoted entirely to oil and gas, he should call upon members with clear conflicts of interest to abstain from voting on these issues and request that other members not object.

• Jim Whitaker is the mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, chairman of the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, a three-term representative, a member of the House Finance Committee and the chairman of the House Oil and Gas Committee.



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