Legislative ethics reform takes big step forward

Editorial

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2007

A bright, heartening moment of optimism Monday briefly dispelled part of the dark cloud of legislative ethical misconduct that's been hanging over the state when a jury found former state Rep. Tom Anderson guilty of conspiracy and bribery.

That shining victory was immediately followed by possibly the most disgusting development yet in this whole mess when Anderson complained that "I think the prosecution has criminalized being a legislator over the last year. I think I fell victim to that."

It apparently was too much to hope for that Anderson would take responsibility and apologize for his actions, or at least have the decency to seem ashamed of himself.

Anderson went into his trial professing his innocence and has maintained it in the face of a preponderance of evidence showing he traded favors as a legislator for money. So it's not surprising a guilty verdict didn't make him change his tune.

He says he plans to appeal. That's fine; he's entitled to do so.

But to portray himself as the victim in this debacle is utterly outrageous.

Anderson would do well to consider news out of China on Tuesday that a former director of the country's food and drug agency was executed for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash. There are parts of the world where political corruption is grounds for death. Anderson should keep that in mind the next time he wants to indulge in self-pity, and realize how good he has it in a system that not only gives him a fair trial, but also a shot at getting the outcome of that trial reversed.

Anderson's "victim" affront aside, Monday still was a landmark day in the state's efforts to resurrect the public's trust in its Legislature.

Anderson was found guilty of selling out himself and all Alaskans, setting a precedent that legal and ethical violations by elected representatives will not be tolerated. Shortly thereafter Gov. Sarah Palin signed into law an ethics reform package for state officials that's a step toward preventing violations like Anderson's from happening again.

The law bans officials from being compensated by outside entities — like businesses or lobbyists — for actions undertaken as part of their official duties. It also prohibits accepting campaign contributions as bribes.

Lobbyists are now required to report to the Alaska Public Offices Commission spending more than $15 on food or drink for a legislator, and legislators are prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than $250 from the same person within a year, excluding food and tickets to charitable events.

The law also bans anyone convicted of a felony involving a moral wrong in the past from registering as a lobbyist.

The measure unfortunately does not stop officials from having consulting contracts, but at least stricter disclosure rules will make it harder for legislators to hide — and therefore get away with — impropriety stemming from these positions.

The new law isn't perfect, but it's a solid start. And realistically, stricter ethics laws aren't the ultimate answer. Just as drunk driving laws don't prevent people from doing so, expanding the bounds of what is specifically labeled as misconduct won't make an honest politician out of a sleazy one.

But at the very least the law will lessen opportunities for misconduct, and Anderson's guilty verdict should lessen the incentive by making it clear that officials using their positions to their own benefit will be held accountable for doing so.

Monday was a good day.



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