Ethics legislation falling short of what's necessary

What others say

Posted: Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Almost three months to the day after a

glaring loophole in state ethics law came to light, the Legislature has finally stirred into action. Senate Judiciary Chairman Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, has trotted out an ethics ''reform'' bill, and the issue got some play in committee last week. The Seekins bill is hard to take seriously as anything other than political damage control. It came with less than three weeks left in the session and includes plenty of extraneous mischief.

What should happen is simple. The Legislature needs to degrease the slippery provision of the executive ethics law that allowed former Attorney General Gregg Renkes to escape sanctions in the KFx case. Investigator Bob Bundy noted that state law has no bright-line test to determine what constitutes a ''significant'' financial interest that triggers conflict-of-interest rules. He gave Mr. Renkes the benefit of the doubt, but then recommended a suitably tight standard for future cases. The Legislature would do well — and improve public confidence — by passing that simple, necessary change.

But the party in power went into stall mode. For three months, the issue languished. Minority Democrats offered a loophole-closing bill that went nowhere. The Republicans running the Legislature, led by Sen. Seekins, said a broader, more deliberate look at the ethics law was needed.

What their longer review produced is an ethics ''reform'' with serious poison pills. It fixes the problem Mr. Bundy identified, but it also includes new ways executive branch officials can escape the limitations of the ethics law.

A new loophole would allow officials to keep holding investments that create conflicts of interest. All they'd have to do is stash the holdings in a ''broker-directed'' investment account. Mr. Renkes used such an arrangement with some of his KFx holdings. He claimed he had no conflict of interest with those holdings because he didn't control the account, his broker did.

That's not believable. Even if a broker is officially in charge of trading, it's too easy for an investor to supply the broker with useful information about an ethically troublesome investment. A broker-controlled account is not a blind trust and doesn't protect the public from conflicts of interest.

... This is a power move more than a philosophical debate. The GOP legislative leadership waited until late in the fourth quarter of the session game to engage the ethics issue. Now they've put this distorted ''reform'' bill on a fast track for Senate hearings.

It's a classic legislative tactic. Take a popular and necessary cause, throw in subtly disguised provisions that undercut what you claim to be doing, and use the press of time as an excuse to limit scrutiny. It's a way to sneak something through that would never pass on its own and still allow the mischief-makers to claim credit for doing good things. With the state ethics law, it will be a sad day for Alaskans if the powers that be get away with it.

— Anchorage Daily News,

April 28

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