Senate panel takes its turn grilling Ross

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

JUNEAU - Members of a Senate committee on Monday repeatedly pressed Wayne Anthony Ross, Gov. Sarah Palin's attorney general appointee, on whether he still believes gays are "degenerates," a term he used 16 years ago in a letter to the state bar association.

But Ross refused to provide a direct answer, saying his personal opinions do not have a place in his role as attorney general.

Members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee also questioned Ross about his criticism of the Legislature's "Troopergate" investigation and his support of a Soldotna man who dumped buckets of cold water on war protesters and produced a video of it set to patriotic music.

The questioning came during the final confirmation hearing for Ross before the Legislature votes on his appointment Thursday.

Two Democratic senators on the committee repeatedly asked Ross if he still believes gays are degenerates.

Ross replied that his job as attorney general is to represent all Alaskans, and "my personal opinions in that regard have no place and I decline to state my opinion."

Sen. Bill Wielechowski pressed for an answer. "Do you still adhere to your statement from years ago where you said they were degenerates and immoral?" he asked. Ross: "I was not attorney general at that time."

Wielechowski asked twice more and did not get a yes or no answer from Ross.

"So you're refusing to answer my question?" said Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat.

Ross replied: "That's correct, yes, senator, you betcha."

North Pole Republican Sen. Gene Therriault then asked Ross if, as attorney general, he would protect the legal rights of Alaskans who are gay. Ross said that he would.

Senators later asked Ross about his support for Jeff Webster, who admitted in 2003 that he poured buckets of water from the back of a passing pickup on women holding peace signs at Soldotna's busiest intersection. Webster, who had a son serving in the Marines in Iraq, received a warning from Soldotna police the first time, then returned a week later with two buckets, video cameras rolling. His video, widely distributed via e-mail, showed several people holding signs on a curbside getting doused from a passing white pickup to the tune of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." As the water showers them, Greenwood voice on the video sings, "I'm proud to be an American."

Ross volunteered to defend Webster for no fee, saying he was harmlessly expressing his free speech out of concern for a son in the war zone. "The more people who protest the war like that, the more dangerous it is for the kids," Ross said at the time. "What does the state see in prosecuting someone whose son is fighting for the country?"

Ross told the committee Monday that he also had a son who was a Marine in Iraq, which is why he volunteered to help Webster. He told the committee he actually did not agree with what Webster did and his statements supporting him were as his lawyer.

"While I felt that I did not agree with Mr. Webster's actions, I felt I could understand his reasons for them," Ross said.

Ross told the committee that he also felt, since Webster ignored the warning from police the first time he doused the protestors, the state had no choice but to prosecute.

Republican Therriault said what Webster did was "abhorrent" but Ross' actions were fine.

"In our system, everybody has to have representation, so I guess I don't fault you for offering that representation. I'm glad to hear you say that, if you had been the attorney general, and if you had reviewed that fact pattern, you would have been OK with pressing the charges that he crossed the line," Therriault told him.

Ross replied he wouldn't have been OK with pressing charges but he would have done it.

The lawmakers also asked Ross about a letter he sent the entire state Senate in February, objecting to the Senate's decision to find Palin's husband, Todd, and nine Palin aides in contempt for failing to show up when ordered by subpoena to testify in the Legislature's so-called "Troopergate" investigation of the governor. Ross was a private lawyer representing Ivy Frye, a state employee and Palin confidante who was among those found in contempt.

Ross' letter said state employees should not have been caught up in a "political vendetta" between members of the Legislature and the governor.

"Loyal, hard-working state employees, and the Governor's husband Mr. Palin, do not deserve such treatment, especially from such an august body as the Alaska state Senate. The Senate's finding of contempt was unwarranted and improper and we request that it be immediately set aside," Ross wrote on Feb. 10.

The letter said Ross' office had advised Frye not to testify in the investigation until the courts ruled on a lawsuit against the subpoenas issued by the Legislature.

The lawsuit, filed by then-attorney general Talis Colberg, lost in court, and Frye and the others provided written statements to the Legislature's investigator. Ross told the judiciary committee Monday that the Legislature and the governor's office should have found a way to work it out without going to court.

"The whole thing was handled very badly, senator. It was handled badly by the Legislature, and it was handled badly by the governor's office," Ross said.

Ross has now been through hearings in both the House and Senate judiciary committees. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks Republican, said he expected Ross to be confirmed when the Legislature votes Thursday. Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who chairs the Senate committee, said he does not have a strong sense which way the vote is going to go but that "I would say he hasn't picked up votes" during the hearings.

Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor feels good about Thursday's vote.

"The governor absolutely stands behind Wayne Anthony Ross as her attorney general and is confident that he is going to get confirmed," Leighow said.