Attorney general tackles Palin era's hot ethics issues

BATTLES: He focuses on officials' legal bills, family members' trips.

December 7, 2009 

Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan is moving to change the state's ethics rules in the wake of the battles waged by former Gov. Sarah Palin.

His changes would allow the state to pay the legal bills of public officials for defending against ethic complaints that are tossed out. They would also set out when a governor's family members can travel on the state's dime. Those were hot issues for Palin, who said she resigned last July in part because of what she called frivolous ethics complaints.

The attorney general has the power to make the changes without approval of the Legislature. Sullivan released them Monday for a public review that lasts through Jan. 22. His spokesman, Bill McAllister, said they would go into effect after the Department of Law goes through all the public comments and makes any potential revisions.

The proposed regulations say state officials can be reimbursed for reasonable private attorney fees if they are "exonerated" defending against an ethics complaint about conduct on the job. Palin and her top aides faced more than 20 known ethics complaints, most of which were dismissed.

Palin reportedly incurred more than $600,000 in personal legal bills but it is not clear how much of that would have qualified for reimbursement under the rules that Sullivan wants to put in place. Palin supporters set up a legal defense fund to cover her costs but it's in limbo after an investigator hired by the state found "probable cause" that it violated the law. The same investigator, Anchorage attorney Tom Daniel, recommended that the state pay a governor's legal costs for defending against complaints that end up tossed out.

"In the wake of that, Gov. Parnell asked for a review," McAllister said.

Meanwhile, the ethics complaints against the former governor keep coming; Andree McLeod of Anchorage filed another one Monday targeting the fact that the legal defense fund continues to solicit contributions.

Fairbanks Republican state Rep. Jay Ramras, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the state should defend officials against ethics complaints and not pay private attorneys to do so. Ramras, a frequent critic of Palin, said it would be better to let more time pass after the drama of the Palin years and not rush new regulations.

"If the attorney general opts to do this by regulation, that's his prerogative. (The Judiciary Committee) hopes to be taking up more substantive issues than the behavior of the executive branch as it relates to family travel. And we'll just rely on good judgment and good oversight by the public," said Ramras.

FAMILY TRAVEL

Palin agreed in February to settle an ethics complaint over the state paying for her children's travel, reimbursing the state about $8,000 for several trips. The investigator in that case said the rules are unclear about when the state should pay for travel by members of a governor's family.

The attorney general is proposing regulations that say the state can reimburse a governor or lieutenant governor for the travel if the family member's presence is "required by state business" or has a "public purpose" related to official duties. That could mean an event in which the family member goes as an official representative of the state, according to the proposal, or is an invited guest accompanying the public official to "family related events."

Another example offered for travel reimbursement is a state-sponsored event the family of the governor or lieutenant governor customarily attends.

"There seemed to be a consensus that the law was just vague in this area. So this clarifies," said McAllister, the attorney general's spokesman.

Sullivan, who was appointed to the job by Palin, said in a written statement that the proposed changes to the rules for executive branch employees "will provide guidance supporting the continued effective administration of the Ethics Act."

There are several other pieces of the proposed new ethics regulations, which are available at www.law.state.ak.us/doclibrary/ethics.html. The Department of Law is planning a Jan. 6 hearing in Anchorage to get public comment.


Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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