Attorneys pan ethics-complaint provision

Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A proposed law to fine anybody who speaks publicly about an ethics complaint against an Alaska lawmaker would likely be tossed out by the courts as a restriction on free speech, two legislative attorneys said Tuesday.

State Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, is calling for fines of up to $5,000 for a person who discloses information about an ethics complaint filed against a legislator or a legislative staffer. The same provision is included in a separate bill for the state's administrative employees.

Almost universally, courts have shot down similar laws as violations of the First Amendment, said Brent Cole, an attorney for the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics. He predicted that a legal challenge in Alaska would produce similar results.

"I don't foresee the Alaska Supreme Court varying from what other courts across the country have done," Cole said. "A penalty (on free speech) in any fashion is very suspect without a compelling state interest."

Tamara Brandt Cook, the director of Legislative Legal Services, had a similar view: "Such a provision is going to create a very strong constitutional issue."

Whether such a law survives would depend on the strength of the public policy arguments justifying it, she said.

That argument, Seekins said Tuesday, is to keep innocent people from being tried in the press before the committee has had a chance to do its work.

"We're going to explore the law to try to find a way to do that, without trampling on other people's constitutional rights," he said Tuesday.

Originally, Seekins had proposed making the penalty a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. A new version of the bill changed that to the civil fine only. On Tuesday, he suggested there might be further room for compromise.

"You've got to get used to me," Seekins said. "I'm a used car salesman. I start high and work my way down."

Seekins' two bills would make sweeping changes to the state's administrative and legislative ethics laws. He introduced the bills last legislative session months after then-Attorney General Gregg Renkes resigned amid allegations of ethics violations. The bills passed the Senate but time ran out on the session with the bills stuck in committee in the House of Representatives. They will still be alive when lawmakers meet in Juneau again in January.

The bill dealing with legislative ethics was examined Tuesday by the legislative ethics committee, as members seek to understand what it would mean to them. Besides the gag rule on complaints, the bill would change the makeup of the committee and lay out where the committee's authority over the Legislature ends.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, said the committee will likely meet again over the ethics bill before the session meets in January. Gruenberg, an ethics committee member who sits on both legislative committees that will consider the bill next session, said the bill deserves close scrutiny because of the weight of the matters it deals with.

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