Legislators’ misconduct tramples trust

Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2006

As the now-kitsch saying goes, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.”

Apparently that’s not the case when it comes to our Legislature and ethical conduct.

Kids receive such basic concepts as don’t lie, cheat or steal along with instruction on the ABCs and admonitions about eating paste.

It seems former Sen. President Ben Stevens and Anchorage Rep. Tom Anderson were out sick that day.

How many others were?

That’s the question on Alaskans’ minds. How far does the corruption go? Will more be implicated in the aftermath of FBI raids on several lawmakers’ and VECO offices this summer? Will others be shown to have used their influence and connections as public servants to their own financial gain?

These questions lead to another, more pressing one: What will it take restore the public’s trust in their elected officials?

The short answer is nothing should have to be done, because it shouldn’t have been eroded in the first place. The alleged actions that have resulted in investigations and charges are blatant ethical violations: bribery, money laundering, taking consulting fees on issues related to legislation.

These aren’t gray areas. It’s quite simple: Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal.

But simple though it is, apparently that’s not enough to keep some legislators from stepping over the line and trampling on the public’s trust in the process.

To restore it, there must be a thorough and rigorous investigation with the findings made public. Not a witch hunt, by any means, but all substantiated allegations of legislative misconduct must be fully explored and their results shared so that those implicated can either be cleared of the stigma of misconduct or forever stained by it so they will no longer jeopardize Alaska’s political system.

A strict code of ethics also must be implemented in the Legislature. It must address even the most no-brainer of violations, such as bribery, and lay out the right and wrong on more complicated matters.

Adopting an ethics policy will not protect against all future corruption in government. There are laws against drunk driving and that obviously doesn’t prevent it from happening. That’s why an ethics code also must stipulate how allegations of misconduct will be addressed. They must be investigated by an unbiased authority, one which has no allegiances to the implicated or their party, and derives no job security from the outcome.

Hopefully this ethics scandal is a case of a few bad apples ruining the image of the whole barrel. Legislators know right from wrong. No one’s questioning that. They shouldn’t need more incentive to act ethically than their responsibility as public servants and the threat of being voted out of office if they do poorly in that role.

But apparently more incentive is needed, in the form of strict ethics legislation.

In the meantime, in case any more lawmakers get confused, here’s something to keep in mind:

Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal.

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