JUNEAU — State lawmakers on Wednesday grilled Gov. Sarah Palin’s appointee for state attorney general, Wayne Anthony Ross, as Ross defended past controversial statements and said he believes that former state legislator Vic Kohring is innocent despite an Anchorage jury convicting him of corruption.
Wednesday was the first day of confirmation hearings for Ross, with the Legislature scheduled to vote April 16 on whether he should be the state’s new attorney general.
“Nobody ever accused me of tippy toeing around the issues. Now I’m asking for this job of advocating for Alaska, for the state that I love almost as much as I love my wife,” Ross said.
Ross was the original defense lawyer for Kohring, whom federal prosecutors accused of taking bribes when he represented Wasilla in the state Legislature. Ross maintained at the time that Kohring was innocent, and said Wednesday under questioning from Senate judiciary committee members that he still believes that’s true, despite a jury in Anchorage federal court finding him guilty. Kohring was sentenced last year to serve three-and-a-half years in prison.
“Vic’s main problem was that he was naive,” Ross said.
Ross said Kohring didn’t follow his legal advice and then hired another lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle. Ross, responding to questioning, said he thought Palin was wrong to call on Kohring to resign from the Legislature following his indictment.
Ross also said he thought the governor was wrong to call on Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to step down from office in October after he was convicted — a conviction that a U.S. District Court judge dismissed on Tuesday. “I believe our system of justice should work first before somebody is publicly asked to resign,” Ross said.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski brought up previous Ross statements, including saying the idea of Native sovereignty is a 19th century principle, and using words like “immoral,” and “degenerates” in a letter to the state bar association newsletter during a fight over gay rights in 1993.
“Some of the things that you’ve said are extremely divisive and I don’t think help us as a state move forward. And I don’t know that right now, at this time in our state, it’s in our best interest to have such a divisive figure,” he said.
Ross responded he had a different role in the past as a private attorney representing clients than he would as attorney general. “I want to represent all Alaskans, I’ll have a different hat on … If I have the job of advocate for the state of Alaska then I’m going to advocate for all the people of the state of Alaska,” Ross said.
Most of the pointed questioning came from Democrats and lawmakers generally believe that Ross will end up being confirmed. Ross, a gun-rights advocate, has a lot of Republican support in the Legislature.
On other issues: Ross said he opposed the death penalty, which Palin supports, and believes that state youth workers are often too intent on taking kids from homes in cases of alleged abuse than in keeping families together when appropriate. “I’ve wondered whether it wasn’t a matter of numbers, in other words, the more kids they could get into the system of foster homes, the more money they could come (to the Legislature) and justify getting,” Ross said.
But Ross said that, as attorney general, his role wouldn’t be to make policy. It’s to follow the directions set by the governor and the state Legislature, he said.
“I’m the general, who carries out the campaigns. I’m not the guy who decides when to go to war,” he said.
The most heated exchange came between Ross and Nome Democratic Sen. Donny Olson. “I’m concerned that, as the general, the casualties may indeed be those people that are out there in rural Alaska — the people that I represent. I’ve had torrents of e-mails and torrents of communication (from people), stating that they have difficulty with your appointment,” Olson told him.
Olson singled out Ross’s statements about the rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing. Alaskans have been divided for years on whether residents of far-flung rural areas should enjoy more liberal hunting and fishing access than residents from more urban areas. At stake are longer seasons, higher catch limits and first crack at fish and wildlife during times of scarcity.
In 1989, Ross was co-counsel in a lawsuit that led to the Alaska Supreme Court tossing out the state’s rural-preference law. Federal law calls for a rural subsistence preference and the state’s unwillingness to comply led to a court-ordered federal takeover of subsistence hunting and fishing management across much of the state. When running for governor in 2002, Ross told a crowd in Kodiak that if elected he would hire a band of “junkyard dog’’ assistant attorneys general to challenge the federal rules or seek changes in the law through Congress.
Ross said the state Constitution says Alaska’s assets belong to all state residents, and people should talk instead of going to the feds to get “more rights than other people.”
“You don’t invite the bear into your house and then expect not to get eaten up. We’re being eaten up and we need to get together,” Ross told the committee.
“The bear that you call it is the United States government and that’s what had to step in here because state law was starting to run over the rank and file little guy out there that is trying to make a living out in rural Alaska,” Olson said.
Ross fired back.
“You’re a senator, you represent all Alaskans and you should be working with other Alaskans to develop solutions rather than going out and crying to mama out somewheres else, and saying ‘mom, you’ve got to help me,”’ Ross said. “That’s not necessarily directed at you. But we should have worked together to solve those problems, rather than get somebody else.”
Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire said Ross would be a passionate fighter for the state and she is inclined to support a governor’s choice unless there is a huge reason not to. But McGuire said that, in response to public testimony, she needs to follow up with Ross about his stance on domestic violence issues.