Chairman: Ethics committee can't be blamed for scandal

Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Alaska's Legislative ethics committee works well for those legislators who want to keep on the right side of the ethical line, but shouldn't be relied on to stop intentional wrongdoing, said the committee's chairman.

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Dennis "Skip" Cook, a Fairbanks attorney who serves as chairman of the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics, spoke with the Empire about the strengths and weaknesses of the committee.

Two legislators have been convicted on unrelated corruption charges this year, while former Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, went on trial in Anchorage this week and former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, is awaiting trial.

Weyhrauch served on the ethics committee last year, as did former Sen. President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, who has been implicated in the bribery in court testimony but not charged.

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The lack of public action by the ethics committee has raised questions about its ability to guard the Legislature's integrity, but Cook said that record should not reflect negatively on the committee.

"How are we supposed to know these things?" Cook asked.

"We don't have any investigative staff," he said. "Our main function is training. We give tons of informal advice."

The committee has a part-time staff person, committee administrator Joyce Anderson. Among her dozen listed duties is to "investigate complaints," along with extensive record-keeping tasks.

The ethics committee at the beginning of the 25th Alaska Legislature in January brought in the Josephson Institute of Ethics, based in Los Angeles, for day-long ethics training at which the legislative leadership made attendance mandatory.

That session provided information to legislators on how they could avoid violating either the letter or spirit of the ethical rules under which they operate, but an elected official who intends to be unethical will do so no matter what the committee does, Cook said.

"We don't have the illusion that we can remake unethical people," he said.

Preventing or punishing criminal activity, such as that found by an FBI investigation into the Alaska Legislature, is beyond the ethics committee, he said.

"We're not charged to police the Legislature," Cook said. "We have more of a judicial, or maybe a quasi-judicial, role. If somebody is going to be arrested for a crime, it's going to be the troopers" who do it.

Recently the ethics committee issued an opinion that Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, had violated ethical rules when he introduced a bill in which he had a financial interest. After the ruling, Ramras withdrew the bill.

That, according to Cook, is an example of the system working as it was intended, and working well.

"It keeps people who want to avoid violating the law from doing so," he said.

Ramras himself had requested the ethics committee determine whether his actions were appropriate.

Much of what the ethics committee does is done in secret, Cook acknowledged. The reason the Ramras decision was made public was because he allowed it to become public, Anderson said.

The previous time the ethics committee publicly reprimanded a legislator, the staff person who brought the complaint against the legislator was fired as a result, federal prosecutors said.

That secrecy has left it unclear whether the ethics committee has played any role in the ongoing legislative corruption scandal, and Cook declined further comment. Anderson said she was unable to comment on whether she or committee records had been subpoenaed as part of the federal investigation.

The legislators who might be investigated by the ethics committee have decided to keep such investigations mostly secret.

That may protect legislators from unfounded, politically inspired allegations, but at the same time might limit the effectiveness of investigations, Cook acknowledged.

"We operate in the laws the Legislature gives us," Cook said. "They write the rules. We follow them."

The Legislature also provides the committee's budget, which limits its role as well, he said.

"We don't have a budget to be a police force," he said.

Should they have a bigger budget?

"That's up to the Legislature, I can't answer that," Cook said. "Perhaps the troopers should have an integrity unit, like the feds do."

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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