Colberg stands in way of state investigation

Legislators look into a renewed effort to elect attorney general independently

Posted: Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin's attorney general, Talis Colberg, appears to be blocking state employees from cooperating with a legislative investigation into his boss' administration.

Colberg's actions have left legislators unclear whether he's representing the state of Alaska, or acting as Palin's defense attorney, said Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage.

"He's not representing the state," Crawford said. "His clients, he thinks, are the Palin administration employees."

Crawford hopes the controversy over Colberg's role in blocking the Legislature's Troopergate investigation will give a boost to his bill to make Alaska's attorney general an independent elected official. That bill died in the recently concluded 25th Legislature, but Crawford said he intends to reintroduce it.

Colberg told Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, that his "clients" were several Palin administration employees who are refusing to comply with legislative subpoenas. Elton is chairman of the Legislative Council, which authorized the Troopergate subpoenas.

It is not clear whether Colberg, who did not respond to calls from the Juneau Empire, ordered the state employees not to comply with the subpoenas. In a letter to Elton, Colberg implied that they had all chosen on their own to not comply, but also acknowledged Palin did not want them to testify.

Crawford said he was disappointed to see the state's attorney general say his "clients" were several Palin administration employees who refused to comply with legislative subpoenas, instead of upholding the laws of the state.

The issue was particularly intriguing for Crawford, who has long advocated that Alaska's attorney general should be elected, instead of being appointed by the governor.

A bill to amend the state constitution to do that failed to move in the last legislative session, despite being co-sponsored by House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.

"I believe the attorney general should be elected," Harris said. "The governor is always entitled to her own counsel, there's no doubt about that, but the attorney general should be elected."

Crawford said his bill died in a Republican-controlled committee, but it had opponents in his own party as well. Those opponents include the head of his own caucus, House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

"Electing the attorney general would just politicize (a position) that is already too political," she said.

Juneau's Elton agreed.

"There is a string of accountability with the appointed position," Elton said.

Having the state's attorney general run for office won't mean less politicization, he said.

"That creates its own conflicts of interest. You have people out soliciting for campaign donations," he said.

When Colberg was questioned by legislators prior to his confirmation, he struggled to explain how he might handle conflicts between the interests of the Legislature and the governor - the very issue he's coping with right now.

"Mr. Colberg said he would endeavor to provide the governor with the best legal advice available that would support her policy choices to the extent that they are consistent with the law," according to the minutes of Colberg's confirmation hearings before the House Judiciary Committee.

Colberg told the committee that "it is not inconsistent to provide legal advice to the governor and to the Legislature on individual issues but still give deference to the person who appointed him."

Crawford said recent attorney generals, including Colberg, have shown the need for an independent voice in the state's top law job.

Prior to Colberg, former Gov. Frank Murkowski had Dave Marquez, a former VECO lobbyist, and Gregg Renkes, who resigned under pressure, as his attorneys general.

"I thought Gregg Renkes was an even more politicized attorney general, who was only doing his governor's bidding," Crawford said. "His only qualification was being one of Frank Murkowski's right-hand men."

Crawford's bill would amend the Alaska Constitution, and so required a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature and a public vote.

"I think this is an office that ought to be put in front of the Alaska voters and let the people decide," he said.

During the term of former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, Republican Rep. John Coghill introduced a bill to make the attorney general an elective office.

Crawford said that Coghill supported an independent attorney general when the governor was a Democrat, but under Republican governors he has opposed the elected attorney general.

Coghill's original bill would have had an attorney general elected on the same ticket as a governor, but would be an independent elected official not able to be fired by a governor. He did not return phone calls this week or last week about why he changed his position.

Nationally, only four other states have appointed attorneys general, according to information from the National Association of Attorneys General provided by Crawford's staff.

There are 43 elected attorneys general, while one is appointed by a state Supreme Court and one by a state legislature.

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