Lawmakers say ethics ruling won't affect them

Legislative committee chairmen say their circumstances differ from those of Rep. Jay Ramras

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2007

Although the House Ethics Committee ruled it was "improper" for one House committee chairman to have introduced a bill on a topic in which he had a personal financial stake, other committee chairmen in similar circumstances say the ruling shouldn't affect them.

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The Select Committee on Legislative Ethics voted unanimously in June it was inappropriate for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, to introduce a bill benefiting the cruise ship industry while his Fairbanks hotel and restaurant businesses counted on industry contracts for much of their business.

Ramras said he would abide by the ruling and withdraw his bill.

Other members of the House of Representatives with conflicts or potential conflicts said that while their cases were similar, they weren't identical to the Ramras situation and they were under no obligation to change how they operate.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, also has introduced bills that could benefit the cruise ship industry. He works as a cruise ship agent during the summer.

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Johansen said the Ramras decision was different enough from his circumstances that it didn't apply to him.

Johansen said he works for an independent company that provides logistical services to the ships, not for the companies directly.

"I'm not paid by any cruise company whatsoever," Johansen said.

The cruise industry opposed the creation of the state's new Ocean Ranger pollution prevention program, and Johansen introduced House Bill 164, which would downgrade the rangers from U.S. Coast Guard-certified marine engineers to wastewater treatment technicians, similar to the operators of municipal sewage plants.

Johansen said taking action on cruise ship bills didn't present him with an improper conflict of interest.

"I don't have any hotels, anything like that," he said. "I'm just a grunt on a dock."

One lawmaker who is paid directly by those he legislates about is House Finance Committee Co-chairman Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. Almost all important legislation in the House passes through the Finance Committee, making its co-chairmen among the most powerful legislators in the Capitol.

When the Alaska Legislature is not in session, Meyer works for Conoco Phillips as a procurement analyst. Conoco Phillips is one of Alaska's major oil producers, part owner of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, and a key player in the negotiations over a natural gas pipeline.

Meyer said he doesn't have an improper conflict of interest because he takes a leave of absence from the oil company during the session, so he isn't even an employee at that time.

"There's no guarantee they have to hire me back, but they always have," Meyer said.

That's much different that Ramras' circumstances, he said.

"Jay, he's got his own business so he's always an employee," Meyer said.

Meyer said he went beyond what legislative ethics rules require, and stepped aside from any Finance Committee action that might affect his employer or the oil industry.

"I never do introduce anything having to do with the oil industry. I don't even run the committee, unless it's kind of minor or indirect," in terms of its effect on the industry, he said.

In the last session Meyer introduced a bill, House Bill 164, to change how the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Fund is invested. A better return on the $50 million fund could eliminate the need to spend general fund money on the program or raise the tariff on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline by a penny a barrel, he said.

Meyer said he did not consider that bill to benefit the oil industry, but to make more money for the state.

"My intent here was not to save the oil companies any money," he said.

During floor debate on the bill, Meyer wound up having to fend off calls to increase the oil tax, however. Meyer declared his conflict of interest, but the House required him to vote on the issue anyway.

Meyer said when he feels he has a conflict of interest, he turns over the chairmanship of the Finance Committee to his co-chairman, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

Chenault has disclosed his own conflict of interest there. He is a vice president of family-owned Qwick Construction on the Kenai Peninsula, which does some work for the oil industry there.

It is not clear how much Chenault gets from the oil business. His financial disclosure forms list only income from Qwick, not individual customers, and Chenault did not return repeated calls.

Meyer said Qwick Construction doesn't actually do much oil industry work, but that Chenault discloses the possible conflict out of an abundance of caution.

"I don't think he feels he's as close to (the oil industry) as I am," Meyer said.

Another representative with a potential conflict of interest is House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage.

Hawker has said on the floor of the House that while his wife works for Conoco Phillips, in a job state records show pays $113,365 a year, that does not present him with a conflict of interest regarding matters affecting that company or industry.

House Speaker John Harris predicted oil industry links among chairmen would be an issue for the House Republican Caucus prior to the upcoming Oct. 18 special session on the Petroleum Profits Tax soon to be called by Gov. Sarah Palin.

Especially critical will be what happens with the House Finance Committee, chaired by Meyer and Chenault, with Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, as vice chairman.

"There isn't any doubt that Kevin Meyer has to step down from chairing anything," Harris said.

He said members likely would want to ask Chenault how much connection he has to the oil industry, but that it might be necessary for Stoltze to chair Finance during the special session.

Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Democrat, said there are numerous cases in the House, including Meyer's, in which Legislators take action where they shouldn't and that conflict of interest rules need to be tightened.

"There's got to be some lines, but the problem right now is the lines are too lax," she said. "And they've got to be clearer."

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



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