Alaska editorial: Legality of McGuire's consulting contract doesn't make it right

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2007

Did Lesil McGuire break the law in working as a consultant for Providence Health Systems in 2003?

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Probably not. Should she have taken the job? No.

Then-Rep. McGuire, now a state senator, was hired by Providence for $10,500 to help the hospital figure out how to win money from the state in a land deal involving the old Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

There's a conflict of interest right in that sentence. The interests of Providence or any other outfit may clash with the interests of the state, and McGuire is elected to look out for the interests of the state. When she draws part of her income from another interest - one that hopes to gain something from the state - she's trying to serve two masters.

This is a job Sen. McGuire should have declined.

Would Providence have hired then-Rep. McGuire if she had not been a member of the Legislature? Don't bet on it.

That's an important point because it rebuts an argument made by her attorney, Charles Dunnagan. Dunnagan said that with a citizen legislature, you will always have potential conflict between a lawmaker's public duty and private interests.

Yes, but the commercial fisherman, like Paul Seaton, or the oil company accountant, like Kevin Meyer, runs with his private interests right out front for the voters to see. Their work is part of the package they bring to voters, who then decide if they believe the candidate can do right by them.

It's a different matter when lawmakers win contracts and consultant fees after they take office, simply because they are lawmakers. That always has the look of buying access and influence, or at least good will. If the lawmaker would not have gotten the contract without being a lawmaker, just what is the client buying?

The Alaska Public Offices Commission has decided that McGuire did real work for the money she was paid. That sufficed to dismiss one complaint against her. But the evidence that led to dismissal of that accusation raised the conflict-of-interest complaint.

One APOC commissioner wanted the conflict issue immediately referred to the Legislative Ethics Committee. But by a 3-2 vote, the commission delayed any referral until February. Meanwhile, APOC staff will investigate further.

Fair enough. McGuire should have the benefit of doubt.

Trouble is, taking the Providence deal created doubt about who she was working for. There should be no doubt about that for an elected official.

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