Alaska editorial: Legislative ethics rule good but enforcement is needed

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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The Legislature's Ethics Committee is not always the most vigilant of guardians. It's a mix of legislators and ordinary citizens subject to legislative confirmation. Legislative members who get too aggressive about enforcing high ethical standards may find themselves isolated by their colleagues. Public members who get too uppity may not be confirmed or reappointed.

So it's a pleasant surprise to see the Ethics Committee require full financial disclosure from legislators after their final year in office. The new directive, issued Tuesday, reverses a long-standing practice that has provided too much room for lawmakers to keep secret any business deals or consulting contracts struck their final year in Juneau.

For decades, an Alaska legislator who retired or was defeated for re-election did not have to file a financial disclosure report covering his or her last year in office. That's because reports on the previous year's finances aren't due until March, and by then the lawmaker had left office. No longer technically a "legislator," he or she was freed of the annual disclosure requirements imposed on "legislators."

This free pass on financial disclosure never made much sense, except in a lawyerly, hairsplitting way. Disclosure is supposed to give the public confidence that public officials are serving the public, not their own pocketbook interests. Just because a lawmaker is on the way out the door shouldn't change anything. During the last year in office, a lawmaker still has an obligation to be accountable to the public. In fact, the temptation to make profitable financial deals might be even greater as a lawmaker contemplates returning to the workaday world.

The Ethics Committee's new rule sets the right standard. Enforcement, however, is another question altogether. Some of the most powerful potential sanctions - expulsion, censure, losing committee assignments or staff - disappear once a lawmaker leaves office. An ex-lawmaker who spurns the new rule and doesn't file apparently faces a maximum fine of $100. To some lawmakers, that might be a small price to pay to keep embarrassing information hidden.

Come January, one of the more urgent issues facing the Legislature will be ethics reform. That reform should make clear that departing lawmakers still have to file one last financial disclosure - and impose a penalty that's serious enough to ensure compliance.

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