FBI probe changes political landscape

Some analysts say ethics cloud has recharged voters

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Facts are hard to come by in the ongoing federal investigation into corruption in Alaska politics, but it has still managed to change the political landscape in the campaign for the Nov. 7 election.

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Candidates are wary about the sources of their donations. Ethics is now a staple issue in every campaign. And voters who otherwise may have dozed through another midterm election have perked up.

"There's a lot of people that took more notice because of this," said Chris Thomas, a 24-year-old state employee living in Juneau. "There are scandals all across the United States and then something hit home locally. It was like a surge to go out and at least vote."

At the end of August, just after the primary election, the offices of six Alaska legislators were raided by federal agents. One of the search warrants said investigators were looking for financial ties between the lawmakers and the oil field services company VECO Corp. Among the items agents were looking for: caps and clothing with the phrase "Corrupt Bastards Club."

No indictments have been handed down and no charges of wrongdoing have been levied against those legislators. FBI agents and Department of Justice officials have been silent on the investigation ever since the raids.

The VECO executives named in the warrant - Chief Executive Bill Allen, President Peter Leathard, Executive Vice President Roger Chan and Vice President Rick Smith - are regularly among the top individual donors for Republican candidates.

Not this year. Candidates for governor and the Legislature have sworn off VECO money this election cycle for fear of being touched by scandal. Several who had already taken money have returned it.

That has left something of a void in Republican party coffers, but one that was quickly filled by retirees and other oil industry service workers, state GOP chief Randy Ruedrich said.

"When people say, 'I'm not going to take a contribution or return a contribution,' it makes people more creative or resourceful in how they reach out to folks," Ruedrich said. "We have seen donors involved that have not necessarily been involved or very active in '02 and '04."

Ruedrich said the state Republican party has not taken any VECO cash, either, but only because those executives have not donated.

"They have been neither indicted nor convicted, so it's totally inappropriate to characterize their funds in any way," Ruedrich said.

When it comes to the issues, the big topic of the election - a North Slope natural gas pipeline - had to make room for a sudden flood of ethics stances and proposals. Gubernatorial candidates Sarah Palin and Tony Knowles each proclaimed being "squeaky clean" and pledged action upon taking office.

Knowles says he will sign an executive order his first day "requiring all executive branch employees to follow the highest ethical standards" and to disclose potential conflicts. Palin said she is committed to making government more transparent and dispel the atmosphere of distrust.

At the legislative level, Democratic lawmakers wagged their fingers at the Republican majority for stopping their revisions to state ethics laws for the past two years. Hopeful candidates have seized upon the issue in their campaign ads, such as Democrat Mike Doogan, a former newspaper columnist running for Anchorage House District 25 against Republican Thomas Lamb.

"Whether crimes were committed really isn't the point. Our lawmakers should be in the center of the ethical playing field, not skulking around the sidelines, or worse, completely out of bounds," Doogan says in one radio spot.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro said he believes the biggest impact of the FBI raids is on a voting public already skeptical of state government from scandals past.

"The biggest impact on the public's perception is that government is broken," Halcro said.

But will that perception change how Alaskans vote on Nov. 7? If a sample of Juneau voters heading to the polls to cast absentee ballots is any indication, probably not.

Thomas, the 24-year-old state worker, is a registered Democrat. He said the ethics cloud gave him another reason to vote, but it didn't change how he was going to vote.

"For me, it was just a reconfirmation of everything I always knew about the people I don't want to vote for," Thomas said.

Joe Kyle and Larry Cotter, registered Republicans and executives with the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, have kept up with the news reports but also said the news changed nothing for them at the polls.

Kyle, 57, said he would like to see more disclosure requirements of public officials. But the way he sees it, ethical foibles in politics are a part of human nature.

"I'm not looking for any great pieces of legislation to make people stop being human beings," Kyle said.

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