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House speaker tightens ethics rules

New regulations ban cell phones, notes on floor of Legislature in effort to prevent unethical influences

Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Just before the Alaska House of Representatives began debate on Gov. Sarah Palin's oil tax bill Sunday evening, House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, laid down some new rules:

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No cell phone calls, and no notes passed from the gallery to lawmakers on the floor, under threat of expulsion from the chamber.

One Republican member also tried to call "foul" on some colleagues' perceived conflicts of interest, but was rebuffed.

The House then passed a bill likely to raise taxes on the industry by more than $1 billion, over the objections of mostly Republican legislators, including three with ties to the oil industry.

It was in stark contrast to last year, when an oil tax more favorable to the oil industry passed.

"I give the speaker a lot of credit for setting up a much better, much cleaner process," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and House Democratic Leader.

Last year, Harris himself took phone calls while presiding over the floor debate, she said. Also last year, convicted felon Bill Allen, owner of the oil field services firm VECO Corp. was in the gallery, using former Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, to send messages to allies on the floor.

"Bill Allen physically handed notes to Tom Anderson across the rail right in front of me," said Frank Ameduri, House Democratic press secretary.

Anderson has since been convicted on unrelated bribery charges, but federal prosecutors said he also had a consulting contract with VECO for which he did no work.

Also Sunday, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, urged her fellow legislators to take a new stand against conflicts of interest.

Legislators work together to get around the state's Legislative Ethics Law that bars them from voting on matters in which they have a personal conflict of interest by using the body's internal rules.

In practice, an individual legislator can be excused from voting on a matter, but it takes the unanimous consent of all the other legislators. That means that if there is even a single objection, the presiding officer will require the legislator to vote even if the lawmaker has a financial conflict of interest.

LeDoux asked that no one object when people with "clear ties to the oil industry" ask to be excused from voting. Her request was not well received.

"Just because somebody is part of an industry, you can't paint them as an industry shill," said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

LeDoux tried unsuccessfully to convince others not to object to the conflicted legislators being excused, and then to force a vote that would have put the names of those objecting on the record.

She said later the public would like to know which representatives think those with conflicts of interest should vote.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, again announced that his family-owned construction firm has long done oil field work.

"I'm not afraid to admit that I work in the oil industry, and I have all my life," he said.

After objections, Harris told Chenault he was required to vote.

Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said that under the strict definition of a conflict of interest, he did not have one because he did not own ConocoPhillips, the company for which he works as a facilities support coordinator.

"I do not have a substantial equity interest in ConocoPhillips," he said.

He acknowledged that there was a perception that he had a conflict of interest, but that he had always been open with the voters who they were electing.

"I've always made it quite clear to the people who elected me where I work," he said.

Meyer asked to be excused from voting as well.

Despite LeDoux's request, there were numerous objections to his not voting.

"There were many objections," Harris said. "You will be required to vote."

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, announced that his wife works for ConocoPhillips, but said that did not present a conflict and did not ask to be excused from voting.

Last spring, a similar situation took place. Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, had been indicted on federal bribery charges in connection with VECO's efforts to pass oil and natural gas bills last year, but had not been convicted when Palin's gas bill reached the floor.

At the time, Democrats held a press conference and asked Republicans to not force Kohring to vote. Kohring left the floor during the debate so fellow Republicans did not have to decide whether he should participate.

During last year's oil tax debate, then-House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, objected to Allen and others trying to influence what was happening on the floor.

After Berkowitz made an emotional speech decrying the influences and proclaiming "this is our floor," Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, jumped up and denied any notes had been passed.

Weyhrauch was indicted in May on federal bribery and extortion charges. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Berkowitz made his speech right after Harris took a phone call, Kerttula said.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or pat.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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