Corruption specter, solution crosses party lines

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The recent jury verdicts in the public corruption trials of former Alaska Legislators have been disturbing, to say the least. As a strong supporter of the legislative process in our democratic system of checks and balances, I take no pleasure in seeing Alaskans' confidence in our representative system of government shaken to its very foundation. As difficult as this is to bear, I believe it is necessary to begin restoring confidence in the Legislature. For this reason, I recently chose to attend portions of the trial of former Speaker of the House Pete Kott to show that members of the Legislature are watching to fully understand the illegal activities that transpired in the recent oil and gas tax debate. While some observers take satisfaction that the current investigations reflect badly on Republican Legislators, a review of the past indicates that impropriety by elected officials is not limited to a particular party.

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A quick review of Alaska legislators who have crossed legal and ethical boundaries shows that individuals of both major parties have succumbed to the siren song of money, power and influence.

The last legal proceedings against a member of the Legislature for corruption occurred in the early 1980s, when both a Democrat and Republican were forced from office. Democratic Sen. George Hohman of Bethel was convicted of bribery in 1981 for trying to steer the state into the purchase of a controversial aircraft for fire suppression efforts. One year later, Republican Sen. Ed Dankworth of Anchorage left office after formal charges of corruption were brought against him, although he ultimately avoided prosecution on a legal technicality. These gentlemen tried to use their positions of influence in the Legislature to obtain a personal monetary benefit with little or no regard for what was best for the state.

There is no surprise that individuals hoping to secure influence in our Legislature search out officials who hold the reins of power at the time. In the cases cited above, Hohman and Dankworth tried to use the strength of their committee positions to enrich themselves. In both instances, those who were interested in circumventing the legitimate process approached legislators in positions to "git 'er done."

On the day the Pete Kott trial began, I was reminded of a recent conviction in a similar case in North Carolina where a former Speaker of the House surrendered to authorities to begin serving a five-year sentence for corruption. The difference was that the corrupt official there had risen to power as a Democrat, whereas Kott is a Republican. The similarity in these cases has reinforced my belief that, although those indicted, searched and questioned here in Alaska have been primarily Republicans, bad actors are not a product of a particular political philosophy or party, but rather a reflection of a general human failing. That failing is susceptibility to the lure of power, wealth and influence.

For the past two years I have been part of a group of senators who openly questioned the previous administration's petroleum tax proposal. This group cut across party lines in open defiance of senate leaders at the time, and demanded independent analysis of how to protect the state's best interest. What transpired in that debate is perhaps the longest and nastiest policy battle since statehood.

Numerous votes and actions in the petroleum tax debate caused me to question the motives and loyalties of both Republican and Democratic colleagues. The ongoing federal investigation and prosecutions have answered some of these questions; however, others are likely to persist until the investigation concludes.

As discomforting as the current situation is, I believe what will emerge is a strengthened legislative process that Alaskans can be proud of. However, there will always be a need for elected officials to be constantly on guard for the sense of privilege that can sneak up on anyone who is given even a modicum of power.

• Gene Therriault is Senate Republican Minority Leader and represents North Pole.

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