Supreme Court rules Wagoner stays senator

Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2003

The Alaska Supreme Court issued an order Friday upholding a lower court decision dismissing a suit by two Nikiski residents who had sought to prevent Sen.-elect Thomas Wagoner from assuming office Tuesday.

"We affirm the Jan. 6, 2003, judgment dismissing the Superior Court lawsuit filed by plaintiffs William Grimm and Merrill McGahan," the order stated. "This disposition renders moot the plaintiffs' request for an order staying Thomas Wagoner's installation in office."

The justices' brief order said the court would issue a formal opinion in due course.

"I'm glad this is over," Wagoner said Friday afternoon from Juneau, where he is readying his Senate office for the start of the legislative session Tuesday.

He said that while he expected to win in the end, the issue had hung over his election and his preparation for the session.

"I'm looking forward to serving in the Senate now; looking forward to doing my job," he said.

Wagoner noted that while the court decision puts to rest the challenge to his election, the suit did bring to the front an issue he thinks needs to be addressed -- that sitting lawmakers and candidates challenging them for their offices are covered by different financial disclosure statutes and that the potential penalties for violating those statutes are not as severe for legislators as they are for challengers. Wagoner has said that situation is inherently unfair.

"I think we need to look at the issue," he said.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that Wagoner's failure to disclose some financial connections on his initial campaign conflict of interest disclosure forms should have been enough to deny him his victory. The Alaska Public Offices Commission ruled in early December that Wagoner's omissions were inconsequential and fined him $150. On Jan. 7, Alaska Superior Court Judge Peter Michalski found likewise, calling his omissions trivial and dismissing the suit filed by Grimm and McGahan.

That dismissal was appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Jeff Jefferson, the attorney for Wagoner who argued the case before the high court Friday morning, said it was "nice to win," and he figured his client's case had a good chance of prevailing. But he said he never assumes anything in the legal system.

"It's reassuring that the court has given serious weight to the choice the people made in the election," he said. "Now it is time for all of us to put this behind us and work together for the common good of the people of Senate District Q and the state of Alaska."

Shortly after Wagoner defeated incumbent Sen. Jerry Ward in the race for the new Senate district, Grimm and McGahan filed suit charging that Wagoner had made numerous omissions on his financial disclosure statement and that he should be barred from legislative office.

The plaintiffs' missing items included the names of some businesses, a partnership with a prominent peninsula Democrat, George Navarre, in a piece of California real estate and his having served as a board member of a California homeowners association.

Had Wagoner not prevailed and had the court ruled the violations sufficient to deny him office, state election law would have given the seat to Ward, who lost by 123 votes.

Wagoner ran in the Nov. 5 election as a Republican Moderate, a move that raised the ire of some peninsula Republicans who were backing the re-election of Ward, a Republican.

Since his election, Wagoner has re-registered as a Republican, stating that he had always been one, but that he had decided to run as a Republican Moderate to avoid a primary fight against the two-term incumbent and to assure he would have the opportunity to unseat Ward in the November general election.

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