MyTurn: Alaska needs reform in ethics

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2006

For ethical government, elect Democrats this year. Even before the FBI raid on legislative offices, it should have been very clear from the last four years that the Republicans, still led by Randy "Convicted-on-Ethics-Charges" Ruedrich, are not seriously interested in setting high ethical standards.

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Think I'm being extreme? Just look at the record. An all-Republican government was unable to close the gaping loophole in state ethics laws that allowed former Attorney General Gregg Renkes to conduct official state business on behalf of a company in which he owned more than $100,000 in stock. Sen. Ralph Seekins' response to this problem was to propose a law that would make it a crime for a citizen to talk about an ethics complaint filed against an executive branch employee. That's right. Seekins' proposal could have resulted in a complaining citizen being packed off to jail for up to a year. I call that extreme.

Democrats proposed good bills to fix the Renkes loophole, but those ideas did not go anywhere. The Republicans could not agree on a solution, so here we are two years after the Renkes scandal broke and the problem has never been fixed.

Campaign finance is another ethical blind spot for the Republicans. After Alaskan voters tightened campaign finance laws through the initiative process, the Republicans in the Legislature pushed to undo the public vote. Thirty-four legislators voted to double the size of allowable campaign contributions and loosen lobbying rules. Thirty-three were Republican. It took Democratic lawmakers such as Eric Croft and Harry Crawford to get campaign finance reform back on the ballot and passed by the people in August. With this record, there should be no doubt in the public's mind about which party is leading on ethics reform.

Here's another example: The Republicans in the state senate elected Ben Stevens to lead them, despite knowing that he'd been paid more than $200,000 from Veco for 'consulting' work that he refused to describe in any detail. They kept him in the job even after news of Stevens' secret fish deal hit the papers a year ago. Remember that scandal? Here's the summary: "State Sen. Ben Stevens held a secret option to buy into an Alaska seafood company at the same time his powerful father, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, was creating a special Aleutian Islands fishery that would supply the company with Pollock worth millions of dollars per year." (Anchorage Daily New, Sept. 18, 2006)

When it was disclosed this spring that Stevens hadn't bothered to tell the Alaska Public Offices Commission about getting $70,000 per year from Enstar's parent company to serve on their board, the news caused barely a ripple in the Republican Senate.

Understanding the ethical context of the Legislature helps explain the other bad things that happen there. The same Republican senators that made Ben Stevens the Senate president also voted to cut funding for Denali Kid Care. How ethical is it to cut funding for medical insurance for children and pregnant women? And were the cuts restored in the budget extravaganzas of the past two years? Absolutely not.

The same type of thinking led to the profits-based oil tax. Democrats proposed fixing oil taxes three years ago. The idea was to take the existing system which taxed gross production and modernize it. The Republicans instead proposed a profits-based system that relied on ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and BP to honestly report their income and expenses. Democrats pushed hard to "go to the gross" but their efforts failed. A profits-driven tax, the one promoted by the members of the "Corrupt Bastards Club," is what we have today. Here's Republican Speaker of the House John Harris eloquently explaining to a Channel Two reporter how we got the "net profits" tax: "We're trying to make this as much as possible a unified Republican approach."

I'll bet John Harris didn't campaign for office on a pledge to adopt "a unified Republican approach" to fixing problems. A better understanding of ethics would help him and other Republicans understand that the first duty they owe is to their constituents, all of them, and not to their party.

It's time for a clean sweep. We've seen what the Republicans are capable of: Randy Ruedrich, Gregg Renkes, the Scott Ogan coal-bed methane debacle, Ben Stevens and now the Veco scandal. Elect Democrats and put Alaska back on track.

• Jake Metcalfe is the chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party.

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