Empire Editorial: Take muzzle off campaign financing watchdog

Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2007

Former Rep. Pete Kott's bribery and extortion trial is not simply revealing how corrupt politics work. It's also exposing how broken Alaska's system of checks and balances is.

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In the ongoing trial in Anchorage, numerous violations of campaign finance laws have turned up. But the Alaska Public Offices Commission, charged with overseeing campaign financing, can't do a thing about them.

Lawmakers have cut the statute of limitations for prosecuting violations of campaign finance laws to just one year - making investigations into possible infractions virtually impossible unless they're caught right away.

Brooke Miles, executive director of the commission, is not happy about the truncated statute of limitations. She wants to restore the statute of limitations to four years, as it was before legislators cut it off at the knees.

The commission recently hired an investigator to pursue violations after Gov. Sarah Palin included funding for the position in her budget. Palin deserves credit for restoring that position after it had been chopped in yet another attempt to weaken the watchdog agency.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission also needs a budget to hire its own legal counsel. As it stands now, the commission's attorney is in the Department of Law, supervised by a political appointee: the attorney general.

The current corruption cases involving several Alaska lawmakers show how poorly this system is working. Ethics complaints against the lawmakers now charged with corruption or under investigation by the FBI were brought to the Department of Law under a previous attorney general, David Marquez, appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski. The department rejected calls to investigate these complaints.

Marquez was a former lobbyist for VECO Corp., the oil field services company entangled in the federal corruption investigation. Former VECO CEO Bill Allen, who already pleaded guilty to corruption charges, testified in court Thursday he bribed Kott, former state Senate President Ben Stevens and former Rep. Vic Kohring.

Marquez's department chose not to pursue an investigation that likely would have implicated his former employer.

Making the Alaska Public Offices Commission independent of the attorney general's office would provide another check on the system. The commission could then seek legal counsel that doesn't have the connections to special interests that so often come with political appointees.

Changes to ethics laws made during the last legislative session deserve praise, but much more needs to be done for Alaskans to regain trust in elected officials. They need to know that the Alaska Public Offices Commission has the power to pursue suspected violations of state laws. They need to know that it has independent legal counsel that will act on the behalf of Alaskans - not special interests such as the oil industry.

The governor and legislators have much to do to create a system of checks and balances that works. They should start by taking action that gives some teeth to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

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