Suit over legislative staff bonuses settled

Former aides may have to pay back $80,000

Posted: Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A lawsuit over the Alaska Legislature's leadership giving cash bonuses to staff members was settled with an agreement to end such practices.

Payments from the state treasury totaling $80,000 beginning in 2001 were given to four aides of Republican legislators and to the Capitol building manager, in addition to their regular salaries.

The lawsuit asked the Juneau Superior Court to declare the bonuses illegal under the Legislative Ethics Code and require the recipients to repay the state. The settlement was reached late last month, and followed a new law prohibiting the practice. It leaves the question of repayment up to the attorney general.

"If I thought it was illegal to begin with, I would have never done it," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, a legislator who gave two aides bonuses.

The plaintiffs were four former Alaska legislators: Katie Hurley of Wasilla, Mike Miller of Juneau, Kay Brown of Anchorage and Niilo Koponen of Fairbanks.

The plaintiffs stated that during their time in the Legislature, no bonuses were paid their staffs. Their lawyer, Douglas Mertz of Juneau, said no aides of Democrats received bonuses.

The settlement comes after the Legislature passed a bill last session prohibiting payment of bonuses to legislative staff. The lawsuit was filed in March.

The four aides who received bonus payments are Dennis DeWitt, an aide to former Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage; Tom Wright, a former aide to Harris; Matt Gill, also an aide to Harris; and Joseph Balash, an aide to Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, who was Senate president at the time of payment.

According to a report from The Associated Press, individual bonuses ranged from $5,000 to $20,000. The bonuses were approved by Legislative Affairs Director Pam Varni.

DeWitt, who now works as a special assistant to Gov. Frank Murkowski, said he had "no comment" on the lawsuit.

"My boss was told it was OK," said Balash. "Otherwise he would have never done it."

Harris said his intent was to pay his staff for working long hours.

"They still work long hours," said Harris, adding that he will no longer give them bonuses.

The settlement's agreement does not require the former aides to return all received funds immediately, but allows the plaintiffs to refer the case to the state attorney general, whose office regularly seeks repayment of overpaid funds from state programs.

Mertz said he plans to refer the case before the 60-day deadline ends.

Harris said it would be unfair to ask the former aides to repay the money because they accepted it under the assumption that it was legal.

Still unresolved is another portion of the suit that asks the court to find the legality of two Legislative Affairs Agency officers approving the payments.

If the case is not settled, Mertz said a pre-trial is planned possibly for early next year.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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