Engineering Ethics

Alaska lawmakers vow to fix 'broken' system

Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2006

During the past year, FBI agents investigating corruption have served search warrants on a half dozen members of the Alaska Legislature.

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Later, another legislator, state Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, was indicted on bribery and money laundering charges.

What upsets some critics of Alaska's ethics laws, however, are practices that remain legal.

• State Senate President Ben Stevens has reported to the Alaska Public Offices Commission having accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from politically connected companies, but doesn't have to say what he does for the money.

• A top state highway official, John MacKinnon, is an owner of a company in line to be paid millions by Coeur Alaska if its Juneau-area mine is profitable, yet he isn't required under state law to disclose the deal. A planned state highway could make both properties more valuable by lowering their transportation costs.

• Former Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes owned more than $100,000 stock in a company that was in negotiations with state officials, including Renkes himself, in a coal development deal. He was cleared by an outside investigator.

State Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, call the laws "weak."

"The system is broken," said Ray Metcalfe, chairman of the Republican Moderate Party and longtime critic of corruption in Alaska state government.

"It's pretty obvious the system, as structured, can be undermined and compromised," he said.

It remains to be seen whether the recent indictment of Anderson and FBI raids on the Capitol offices of six other legislators will prompt new ethics legislation when lawmakers convene next month.

French is taking the lead among Democrats in the state Senate in advocating for new legislation, including tough new conflict of interest rules.

He tried during the last session to close what he calls the "Renkes loophole," but failed. He thinks tough rules will finally pass in the upcoming session.

"What you have now is a tremendous amount of public support," he said. "I think it makes opposing ethics legislation almost impossible."

Many political observers are encouraged by new Gov. Sarah Palin, who made her name by showing that she was willing to stand up to corruption in her own party.

She appointed Attorney General Talis Colberg from outside the state's political establishment. That may help him accomplish his tasks, she said, "beginning with ethics reform that is so needed in state government."

There may be difficulties ahead, however.

David Marquez, Alaska's Chief Assistant Attorney General, warns that the state's constitution has "broad immunity for legislators charged with conflict of interest or self-dealing."

Courts have held, he said, that "if the motives for a legislator's legislative activities are suspect, the Constitution requires that the remedy be public exposure, if the suspicions are sustained, the sanction is to be either administered at the ballot box or in the Legislature itself."

Critics of the state's ethical climate, including Metcalfe, say there is no way for the Legislature to regulate itself and Alaska Public Offices Commission is too weak for disclosure to be effective.

Legislators, if they want less scrutiny, can simply cut the APOC budget. Miles said the commission has recently lost three people from its small staff, including a crucial investigative position.

"We receive our funding from the individuals who are most highly regulated by us," APOC's Miles acknowledged.

French said he'd like to see a stronger commission.

"I think we need to take a look at how much muscle power APOC has," he said.

Metcalfe recommended management of APOC be transferred to the Judiciary Department budget to insulate it from political interference by the Legislative or Executive branches.

Palin has proposed increasing APOC's budget by $100,000 next year and resurrecting the investigator position. French said he supported the move.

In FBI wiretaps, Anderson and lobbyists were overheard discussing methods of getting illegal payoffs around APOC filing requirements.

Miles said more staff could help ensure honesty among those filling out APOC disclosure forms, but wouldn't have guaranteed catching the actions that led to the investigation of Stevens and the indictment of Anderson.

"I do think the scope of the investigation is most likely significantly larger than a small agency like our agency could ever do," she said.

An investigator might have helped, French said.

"Maybe it would have revealed the phony Web site that was alleged in the indictment against Tom Anderson," he said.

The indictment outlines allegations that Anderson and a lobbyist created a fake Web site through which to launder bribe money.

There also is an Ethics Committee in the Alaska Legislature, but it mostly gives advice and sets policy. It has the power to hear complaints, but operates mostly in secret.

Only when a complaint goes to the level of a public hearing is it made public, and since 1993 there have only been three hearings.

"It doesn't happen very often," Anderson said.

The Ethics Committee may have another problem, at least with its image. Two Republicans and two Democrats are appointed to it by their respective political parties.

The two Republican members are Stevens and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, both on the list of legislators whose offices were searched by the FBI.

Stevens did not return a phone call; Weyhrauch declined to comment.

Hollis said he'll be introducing a bill that will require legislators who do consulting to list how many hours they work.

That will make it possible to calculate how valuable the work is. Unusually high hourly rates might suggest the Legislator is being paid for something besides consulting.

"It's just a glaring omission," to not have that information available, he said.

State Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she'd like to boost ethics training for legislators and have a full-time ethics advisor in the budget for regular training sessions.

"The feds do it twice a year. I think we should do it twice a session," she said. "What it does is build a culture that respects ethics."

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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