Conflict of interest is difficult to define, particularly in the legislative branch of government. Does employment at some level in an industry that's going to benefit from a particular vote constitute a conflict of interest for the employed legislator? And if so, should that preclude that legislator from voting if the conflict is acknowledged?
Alaskans face this question as the current legislature considers rolling back some of the 2007 oil tax law that extracts higher taxes than previously from oil production in Alaska in this era of unprecedented high oil prices and oil company profits. Two members of the Senate, Kevin Meyer and Peter Micciche, are direct employees of ConocoPhillips, and voted to pass the current roll-back bill in the Senate, and may do so again on the final bill. The legality of their action is easier to find than the morality.
Both Meyer and Micciche asked the Senate to recuse them from voting on the tax bill. Present rules mandate that if any one member of the body objects, the request for recusal must be refused. Predictably, there were objections.
Many citizens have faced an analogous circumstance. It's not unusual that a prospective juror may be familiar with some aspect of a pending case, and may be asked by the judge if they feel, nonetheless, they can render a fair and objective judgment. An answer in the affirmative often is sufficient for the juror to serve.
Alaska has a long history of conflict of interest getting politicians into trouble; the recent corruption trials of sitting legislators represent nothing new. Consider three earlier spectacular examples. John G. Brady was Alaska governor from 1897 to 1906. Rescued as a child from poverty and homelessness on the streets of New York City, he eventually graduated from Yale, and came to Alaska as a Presbyterian missionary. In a stunning fraud, a crooked mining engineer/entrepreneur named Henry Reynolds collected investments around the country for a phony copper mine on the Kenai Peninsula. A trusting Brady endorsed Reynolds' project and solicited investors while sitting as Governor. When the Secretary of the Interior learned of it, he fired Brady, forever coloring his reputation.
John W. Troy served as Alaska Governor from 1933 to 1939. Troy had come to Alaska after the gold rush and soon was editor and eventual owner of Juneau's Daily Alaskan Empire. Leading what was then called the "federal brigade," the collection of federal bureau employees that ran the Territory, Troy was what would today be called a classic manipulating pol. Not careful about conflict of interest, he routinely steered government printing contracts to his newspaper publishing company. When Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes learned of the practice, he summarily fired Troy.
Sometimes conflict of interest becomes outright bribery, as in the case of George Hohman, who represented Bethel and western Alaska in the legislature from 1966 to 1982. In 1981 Hohman was convicted of offering to share a $20,000 bribe with fellow legislators if they voted to support an aircraft purchase he was pushing and would benefit from. Hohman appealed, claiming innocence, but served three years in prison when the appeal was denied.
Those accused of acting in conflict of interest inevitably proclaim innocence or objectivity, and doubtless many are sincere. And the ambiguity of conflict of interest works in the favor of a plea of innocence. Bruce Weyrauch, one of the legislators caught up in the recent corruption trials, had solicited VECO for legal work while in the House, but not seeking re-election. He did not disclose his solicitation publicly. He was charged with denying the state his "honest services" because after the solicitation, his services could be considered corrupt. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he did not have to disclose the solicitation, and that since no money changed hands, his services were honest.
Meyer and Micciche can claim they receive no direct benefit, that they're only reflecting the "community of interest" all Alaskans have in a healthy oil industry, and that their actions are legal. But the standards of legality are not the same as those of morality, and it's by the latter that they stand condemned in the court of public opinion, their reputations now colored.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.