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New bills would make public records off-limits to public

Richard Mauer
Chris Miller

Two Republican bills introduced Friday would shut out members of the public from official records they are now entitled to view.

Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, wants to prevent the public from seeing a complaint or evidence against a candidate or public official at the Alaska Public Officers Commission unless the watchdog agency determines the person broke the law. In addition to sealing APOC files, Higgins' bill would eliminate public hearings on complaints against candidates and public officials, sending the hearings behind closed doors.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, would seal court records in cases where a defendant was found not guilty on all charges or when criminal charges were dismissed without a guilty verdict. Dyson said he was trying to protect the privacy of defendants who walked away from their trials, though he acknowledged that a jury's "not guilty" verdict didn't necessarily mean the defendant was innocent.

Higgins' House Bill 235 and Dyson's Senate Bill 108 were among 52 bills and resolutions that emerged from the Alaska Legislature on the first day for releasing pre-filed legislation. The second prefiling date is next Friday. The three-month legislative session is set to begin Jan. 21.

Since the upcoming session is the second for the two-year 27th Legislature, any bill that was still alive when lawmakers adjourned last April is still breathing now. There is also ample time for new measures to show up.

The bipartisan Alaska Public Offices Commission, the Alaska response to the political scandals of the Watergate era, has three broad areas of interest: the financing of political campaigns and candidates; financial disclosure reports by candidates, elected officials, top political appointees and some members of boards and commissions; and the conduct and financing of lobbying.

While Higgins' bill would leave current rules on lobbyists in place, it would change the way complaints involving campaigns and financial disclosures are handled by the commission and its staff.

Currently, when a complaint is filed, it is a public record that can be viewed by reporters, other campaigns and the public at large, said Jerry Anderson, the assistant APOC director.

If the complaint merits an investigation, the staff conducts the case in private, Anderson said, but the documents, testimony and records uncovered in the investigation become public when the matter comes up for review before the commission. If the case continues, a public hearing -- a kind of trial -- is held to determine whether the charges have merit. If so, the candidate or official can be fined, or, in the most egregious cases, prosecution can be recommended.

Higgins would send everything behind closed doors and into sealed files unless a violation was determined. His bill doesn't provide an exception for the person making the complaint.

Higgins, a Fairbanks dentist and freshman lawmaker elected in 2012, didn't return a call seeking comment.

Dyson, one of the longest serving legislators and a self-described libertarian, said he thought it was unfair that a person charged but not found guilty could suffer problems related to employment or professional licensing because of a court record.

"I'm going to protect privacy," Dyson said. He acknowledged that the public had a right to know, but said that right had to be balanced against those of defendants when "the process has declared them not guilty."

His bill would mean that some notorious cases would be sealed, such as the murder trial of Anchorage businessman Neil McKay, found not guilty in 1987 in the murder for hire plot of his former brother in law, Robert Pfiel. Had the corruption trial of Ted Stevens been held in a state court instead of federal court, all the evidence that Stevens took gifts and money from an oil-field service contractor and others would also have to be sealed under Dyson's bill since those charges were dismissed over prosecutorial misconduct after a jury found Stevens guilty.

Dyson said his bill might lead to "anomalies," but asserted that it would also prevent injustices.

Democratic Sen. Hollis French, a one-time Anchorage prosecutor who chaired the senate Judiciary Committee from 2007 to 2012, said he thought Dyson had an "interesting" idea that he'd like to look at closely.

"Some people get badly treated -- they're arrested on false pretenses, or they're arrested on a case that turns out to be utterly false or by a policeman who did something wrong," French said. "It's unfair to that person to stain them with an arrest which was completely a mistake. On the other hand, there are people who go to trial and you can't prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, but there's still lots of smoke, lots of evidence. You have to balance out the first case with the second case, where people think, I would've liked to know when I was hiring somebody that they've been to trial on drug charges and the only reason it got tossed out was because somebody didn't show up and testify."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com