Bill would tighten conflict-of-interest rules for Alaska lawmakers

rmauer@adn.comFebruary 13, 2014 

JUNEAU -- A state senator says the Legislature is too secretive in the way it deals with its conflicts of interest and is proposing that a formal vote be required before a legislator who declares a conflict can say "Yes" or "No" to a bill.

Under current rules, a legislator present in the House or Senate must vote on every bill unless the chamber unanimously allows a conflicted member to abstain. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, would lower that threshold to a simple majority, in effect requiring the chamber to pause to consider a conflict before debating the main issue before the body.

Now when someone stands up to declare a potential conflict, as two senators employed by ConocoPhillips did last year before they voted to cut oil taxes, it takes only another legislator to shout -- or mutter -- "Objection" to signify the chamber is not unanimous. The problem goes away, with the conflicted legislator ordered to vote. The objector's name is not recorded and the significance of the conflict may not be fully disclosed on the floor.

"It's pro forma -- someone in the back screams 'objection' and then they vote," Wielechowski said. "Oftentimes, you don't even know who it is that yells it. Someone in the gallery could scream it, quite frankly."

Wielechowski, who was on the losing side of the 11-9 vote to cut oil taxes, said his proposal "is not an attack on anyone personally -- it's just good government."

Earlier this week, Wielechowski proposed Senate Bill 172 to amend the Legislative Ethics Act and Senate Concurrent Resolution 15 to change the Legislature's Uniform Rules. Both govern how Alaska's citizen legislators manage their conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

In addition to requiring the Senate or House to vote on whether a conflicted member can abstain, the bill and resolution package broadens the definition of a conflict to include a legislator's immediate family.

It also changes the standard in the ethics law under which a legislator would have to declare a conflict. Current law says a conflict occurs when the legislator owns a stake in a company or other entity that would be affected by the bill on the floor. The new standard just requires a "financial interest" by the legislator or his or her immediate family.

With Wielechowski in the Senate minority and Democrats having a small presence in both chambers, the bill and resolution stand little chance of action unless they pick up some key Republican sponsors. Senate President Charlie Huggins referred them to the State Affairs and Judiciary committees.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said the measures show Wielechowski has too much free time, perhaps because he's in the minority.

"In my view, this is a very expensive waste of taxpayer time and money from someone who has a lot more time on their hands than I do," Micciche said. "I'm on eight committees, we have some heavy lifting to do on a lot of legislation and there are a lot of important things to deal with right now."

Micciche, a commercial fisherman and superintendent of the gas liquefaction plant in Nikiski, and Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, a property specialist, were the two ConocoPhillips employees who declared potential conflicts during the debate last year on Senate Bill 21, the oil-tax measure. Both said Thursday that they could see value in requiring the name of the objector to be recorded in the minutes, but little else.

Last year, Micciche asked for an advisory ruling from the Ethics committee on whether his employment constituted a conflict of interest. The committee said it didn't. Meyer received a similar opinion when he was in the House in 2008. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, both declared it was possible to perceive they had a conflict during the Senate Bill 21 debate. As it turned out, their votes were essential for the measure passing.

Legislators are generally on the honor system when declaring a conflict, but sometimes people are watching. Just Thursday, the House Ethics Committee issued a decision that Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, violated the Ethics Act in 2013 when he failed to declare a conflict before voting on a school transportation bill. The committee said Herron was an owner of the company that ran school buses for the Lower Kuskokwim School District under a contract worth more than $1 million.

The committee didn't sanction Herron, who had previously paid a $5,000 fine for failure to disclose in another case.

Wielechowski, an attorney with the electrical workers union, said he would declare a conflict and attempt to abstain from voting if right-to-work legislation came before the Senate because it would directly impact the finances of his employer. He wouldn't have a conflict in the case of workers compensation legislation, because that would effect all workers, he said.

Meyer said his constituents on Anchorage's Hillside know about his employment and expect him to represent them -- and that means voting on legislation.

"For me not to vote on big issues, it's 36,000 people that don't have a say in Juneau," he said.

Meyer said that when he served on the Anchorage Assembly, its conflict-of-interest rule was similar to what Wielechowski is proposing, and it was messy.

"Whereas here, the philosophy has always been that you represent a group of people and they deserve to be represented on all issues that come before the Legislature," Meyer said. "They know we're citizen legislators and we're going to have other employment."

Micciche too said his constituents know he works in the fishing industry and in oil and gas, like many of them.

"Folks in districts like downtown Anchorage that may have the ability to deny their dependence on a strong oil industry may feel differently, but the folks in my district want me to vote," Micciche said. "Unless the vote directly affects my pocket, they shouldn't be disenfranchised by their senator not voting."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.

 

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