By Senator Ralph Seekins
February 16, 2006
Last year it became evident to the Senate majority that a review of the state's ethics laws was necessary. The high-profile report completed by former U.S. Attorney Robert Bundy (an active member of the Democratic party) clearly demonstrated that deficiencies exist in Alaska's ethics laws.
Clearly, Mr. Bundy's recommendations deserved to be adopted. Therefore, in matters concerning potential conflicts of interest, SB 186 installs two key benchmarks from the Bundy Report. It establishes that an impropriety exists in a particular situation when: (1) a public officer owns more than one percent of the stock in a business; and (2) the stock in a business is valued at more than $10,000.
SB 186 also provides that, when a potential conflict exists, public officials may place their financial holdings in a blind trust. State and local governments all across the nation use this common practice. In fact, the American Banker's Association describes blind trusts as a method for "government officials to avoid conflicts of interest between their official duties and personal financial transactions."
Another black hole SB 186 addresses is the procedure to use when an ethics complaint is filed against the governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general. Current law requires that potential violations of the Ethics Code be reported to the employee's ethics supervisor. The supervisor then forwards a report to the attorney general for further investigation possibly resulting in formal charges before the State Personnel Board.
Yet, this process is clearly defective should a complaint involve the governor, lieutenant governor or the attorney general. So, SB 186 mandates that an independent counsel be appointed by the Personnel Board - rather than by the attorney general - to determine the facts of the matter. Clear, clean and fair.
With respect to Senate Bill 187 - concerning the legislative branch - here again the intent is to clear up ambiguities in current law. For example, SB 187 illuminates the relationship between the constitution, the uniform rules and the statutes It calls for wider diversification among the membership of the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics. And it clarifies voting procedures among the legislative members of the committee.
All this and, so far, and not a word about confidentiality. The fact is, this legislation implements many necessary clarifications to our ethics codes. But here is an inconvenient little detail: Contrary to popular belief, current law requires the ethics complaint process remain confidential until a finding of probable cause. Again, that is the law today.
So what happens if I break the current law by publicly announcing I have filed an ethics complaint? There are quite likely consequences, right? Otherwise, why have the law? The fact is, there are no real consequences. So the legislation, as proposed, encourages people not to violate the law by imposing a civil (not criminal) penalty against deliberate lawbreakers.
It has been widely, yet incorrectly, reported that the civil penalty is $5,000. Here again we have another one of those inconvenient little facts: The fine could be as little as $1. The language in both bills is very consistent on this issue.
Ultimately, this will be a legislative policy call. If the law requires confidentiality, then the violator must pay the consequences, just like in any other law. If, on the other hand, we are not concerned about maintaining the integrity of this important process, if we are not concerned about accountability, then all confidentiality provisions should be stricken from our ethics laws. It must be either one or the other.
One last thing to consider - your co-worker has just filed an ethics complaint against you. Is it righteous or is it just a grudge? It doesn't really matter since, either way, it must go through the process. But it's times like this that you pray the process works.
About: Senator Ralph Seekins
(R) is a member of the 24th Alaska State Legislature representing
District D - Fairbanks. He has lived in Fairbanks since 1974.
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