Alaska editorial: Public offices commission does the job, but has its limits

Posted: Monday, December 12, 2005

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

It's not every week the Alaska Public Offices Commission fines the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate in back-to-back meetings.

That's what happened last week.

The names on the agenda - Rep. John Harris and Sen. Ben Stevens - were high profile. The fines were small change. The commission did its job.

Rep. Harris was fined $690 for illegally using $6,900 in campaign contributions to help other Republican candidates in their campaigns and to help fund his own campaign for House speaker.

Sen. Stevens was fined $150 for failing to disclose his unpaid chairmanship of a federally funded seafood marketing board that has provided millions of dollars to help boost Alaska's commercial fishing industry.

Meanwhile, the commission rightly rejected a call by former legislator Ray Metcalfe to investigate the work Sen. Stevens did to earn more than $1 million in consulting fees from Alaska and Seattle businesses over the past five years.

Our conclusions about these decisions:

• Rep. Harris was wrong to use the money as he did and he acknowledged it. He repaid his campaign from personal funds and said the $690 fine was fair. "I don't think any legislator should be held above the law," he said, showing others how to stand up and take the medicine of public scrutiny.

• APOC Commissioner Sheila Gallagher was right to reject staff director Brooke Miles' point that the law might stretch enough to allow Rep. Harris the use of campaign funds to stump among his colleagues for the speaker's chair. Commissioner Gallagher said the commission shouldn't stretch campaign laws for anybody. That's the right principle, and the commission needs to stand by it.

• The commission also was right to fine Sen. Stevens for the chairmanship omission on his disclosure form. The whole reason for the APOC disclosure requirements is public knowledge of an official's potential conflicts and financial stakes in issues on which he or she represents the people. Sen. Stevens should have listed his role on the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board.

• At the same time, APOC did the legally right thing in saying no to Mr. Metcalfe. Sen. Stevens has done what all lawmakers are required to do in terms of disclosure of outside income - he listed what he did for the money, which was consulting work. The law does not require an explanation or a summary or a cost-allocation study of the work. If Mr. Metcalfe wants to accuse Sen. Stevens of graft, he needs to take him to court - either a court of law or the court of public opinion. Otherwise, Sen. Stevens is left to the court of his own conscience.

• However, it's clear that Alaska's disclosure laws have at least one loophole. Describing yourself as a consultant with no requirement for any proof or documentation of work can indeed be cover for political favors - or, at the least, political suspicions. Sen. Stevens is not the only legislator to earn money as a consultant for unspecified assignments; he's just the highest-profile example.

• When it comes to disclosure of outside income and campaign contributions, more is better. The less voters can see, the more they suspect. That's not an unhealthy mind-set; it's political common sense.

• A shortcoming in the law should not be an excuse for doing nothing to fix it. Legislators need to look at the disclosure laws and craft a better way of asking the question: What exactly, and in reasonable detail, do Alaska lawmakers do to earn money outside of their official duties in the Legislature? Until the public gets good answers to that question, it will always wonder and doubt. And that doesn't do much for the public trust.

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