Many questions remain about Attorney General Gregg Renkes' involvement in a billion-dollar coal deal between Alaska and Taiwan. But one that still needs to be asked is who was doing Renkes' job while he was out promoting international trade instead of being a lawyer.
Whether Renkes broke the law or violated state ethics rules won't be clear until Robert Bundy, former federal prosecutor for Alaska, completes his investigation into Renkes' dealings with KFx of Denver. KFx has developed a coal-drying method that would enhance the value of low-grade coal in the Beluga fields west of Anchorage. While KFx stock was the single largest investment in Renkes' portfolio, he was brokering a deal between Alaska and Taiwan to develop the Beluga fields using KFx technology.
Democrats have called for the attorney general to resign because of what appears to be a serious conflict of interest in pushing a coal deal that could have been personally beneficial to Renkes. It would seem reasonable, however, that the investigation be completed before Renkes makes that decision. Government would be disrupted too often and accusers would gain far too much power if high-level officials were forced to resign every time allegations of wrongdoing were leveled against them.
Still, whether or not Renkes has violated ethics rules, one would have to question what he was doing overseeing the coal deal in the first place. In an April 30 e-mail, Renkes wrote the state's trade representative in Taiwan, saying that Gov. Frank Murkowski "is relying on me to manage all aspects and contacts related to this project."
The attorney general's job is to advise the governor and other state officials on legal matters, serve as the top state prosecutor of criminal law and enforce consumer protection and unfair trade practice laws.
It's understandable that the attorney general would review trade agreements, but it's not his place to oversee every aspect of a trade deal. The state has a department of economic development to do just that. Renkes' personal oversight of the negotiations raises questions about whether he was neglecting his own job and whether Murkowski is requiring his top people to perform their appointed duties or is simply allowing them to take on additional jobs that will ultimately benefit them.
The governor needs to do his best to move the Renkes investigation forward as quickly as possible so that it does not distract the Alaska Legislature from the real work that needs to be done during its 2005 session. After the debacle with state oil and gas commissioner Randy Ruedrich, Murkowski does not need another blatant conflict of interest to tarnish his image and diminish his effectiveness. He needs to act swiftly, get this case behind him, and set his sights on an upcoming legislative session that needs to be far more productive than this year's.