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Gov. Frank Murkowski vowed this week that his new labor commissioner would "clean out" a state department that has deteriorated and become highly politicized.
Exactly what problems there are with the department is a question for which Ed Flanagan would like an answer.
"I don't know what he's talking about or where he's getting that from," said Flanagan, the former labor commissioner under Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. Flanagan earlier this year responded publicly to a series of political ads aired by a Republican-friendly trade group attacking the Knowles administration.
Americans for Job Security, a nonprofit group, aired television spots that used state Department of Labor and Workforce Development statistics to argue that Alaska ranked last in economic growth.
The group attacked the Knowles-Ulmer administration as Murkowski was seeking the GOP gubernatorial bid. Flanagan held a press conference in June refuting the information in the television commercials.
Tuesday, Flanagan pointed out that Murkowski's administration is conducting audits of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Corrections, which previously was headed by Democratic appointee Margaret Pugh. Flanagan and Pugh are well known for being active in the Alaska Democratic Party, Flanagan said.
"If they are accusing me of being a Democrat, so what? That's no secret," Flanagan said.
Murkowski has issued an administrative order calling for audits of all departments, and an official said Monday that Labor and Corrections would be examined first.
This week Murkowski appointed Greg O'Claray, a former maritime union official and lobbyist, to turn around the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Murkowski said he wants O'Claray to "clean out what has become a moribund, highly politicized agency."
O'Claray is a former executive with the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, which represents about 300 maritime workers and has lobbied with Murkowski chief of staff Jim Clark on behalf of mining interests.
Murkowski shed little light on the comments following the announcement. When asked about what changes are needed in the department, he said, "I'm not here to be critical."
"I think a little too much recognition that labor has kind of been set aside in the sense of what it can provide in relationship to more job training and vocational training," Murkowski said Monday.
The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development enforces wage and labor laws, administers unemployment insurance claims and job training and vocational programs.
O'Claray did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.
O'Claray has lobbied for the maritime union and also for Greens Creek Kennecott Mining Co., which paid him $25,000 in 1996, and Fairbanks Gold Mining Inc., which paid him $25,000 in 1997.
Mano Frey, executive president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, said he was perplexed by the governor's comments about the Department of Labor.
"I don't know what the governor's intent was. It's not my experience they are either moribund or politicized," Frey said. "We've enjoyed a relationship with every commissioner, regardless of who the governor is."
Murkowski's press secretary John Manly said the department generally has been considered too partisan.
"The face of the agency is the commissioner and the commissioner they had, it's pretty safe to say, is a pretty partisan fellow," Manly said.