Senate ethics reforms criticized

What others say

Posted: Thursday, May 12, 2005

How quickly the Senate majority has forgotten what reform of state ethics laws is all about.

The whole idea — after the debacle with former Attorney General Gregg Renkes — is to restore the people's faith in state government with an ethics law that works.

Part of the legislation under debate would do that. But the Republican majority insisted on keeping one section of Senate Bill 186 that does little more than protect the powerful from public scrutiny.

Under the legislation, anyone who files or intends to file an ethics complaint against a public official would be fined up to $5,000 for telling anyone about the complaint. Perhaps we should be relieved — lawmakers did away with a previous version that would have put people in jail for up to a year for discussing an ethics filing.

But this bill still goes too far. It prevents the very person who knows the most about potential ethics abuses from discussing the allegations with the press and it will limit what the public knows about inquiries into possible abuses of the system.

Supporters of Senate Bill 186 say the confidentiality provision is needed to prevent people from using ethics allegations to do a hatchet job on public officials. But one of the prices that politicians pay for their considerable power is facing public scrutiny for their actions. A process is in place to clear politicians' names if they did nothing illegal. Allegations need to be made in the open, so that claims against public officials do not get brushed aside by those in power.

Imagine if this provision had been in place during the investigation of Renkes, whose personal financial gains from his state role in an international trade deal were questioned. The ethics inquiry stated that, according to state law, his actions did not constitute an ethics breach. But the obvious conflict between his personal investments and his public role compelled many to decide the law needed to be changed so that such a conflict would not be allowed in the future.

The former attorney general refused to step down from his job and only did so after intense public pressure. That pressure undoubtedly would been less fervent if those raising the issue were muted.

The press would have pursued the story even if those who first questioned Renkes' conflict of interest were muzzled. But comments in the stories clearly would have been one-sided. ...

The ethics bills moving through the Alaska Legislature are clearly needed to put any teeth into the state law. SB 186 and 187 would limit public officials from owning stock in a company with which they are involved in state business to 1 percent of the company's total value or $10,000.

These proposals need to become state law, but without the provision that would silence those who file ethics complaints. This measure gives too much power to those who already hold high office and too little to those who want to keep politicians honest.

— Juneau Empire,

May 8

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