JUNEAU -- A request by a Democratic senator that a Republican committee chairwoman require oil industry officials to be sworn before testifying Wednesday about the effects of last year's tax cut erupted into a sharp personal battle between the two. The verbal confrontation started in committee and moved to the Senate floor.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, chairwoman of the Senate Resources Committee, declared the request by Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, to be "unprecedented and inappropriate."
Citing the law that allowed legislators to put witnesses under oath -- it went back to territorial days -- French said his request was hardly unprecedented but was the "search for truth" he owed his constituents.
"An oath is a marvelous thing," French said.
The Resources Committee hearing was called to allow representatives of the state's "big three" oil producers, whom Giessel described as "invited citizens," to testify about activity on the North Slope in connection with release of the state's spring revenue forecasts. Everyone, including French, expected they would say that activity had increased because of the oil production tax cuts enacted last year in Senate Bill 21 -- and which will appear on the ballot this year for repeal under a citizen referendum.
French cited the Coast Guard investigation into the grounding of Shell's drilling rig Kulluk as a reason for putting the company officials under oath. Referring to a recent Daily News story on the investigation, French noted that a Shell official once denied to a reporter that there was any connection between Shell's decision to move the Kulluk in early winter and the property tax the company would have to pay if the rig remained safely in Dutch Harbor. But under oath to the Coast Guard, the Shell official admitted the pending tax payment was one of the considerations for beginning the rig's tow into a fierce Gulf of Alaska storm.
French made his request in a letter Tuesday that testimony be sworn. When she gaveled open the meeting Wednesday afternoon, Giessel said she was refusing the request.
"Springing an under-oath requirement on invited citizens at the last minute is not only unfair but unprofessional," Giessel said. The request by French, a former prosecutor, would bring a "criminal justice approach to this committee meeting," she said.
"Can I just have one minute to respond, please?" French said.
"It's not really a debatable issue," Giessel replied. "Thank you very much, Sen. French."
Speaking into his live microphone, French continued, "I guess I'll just, as a point of personal privilege, I will say that ..."
Her voice rising, Giessel talked over him. "Sen. French, you're out of order."
A video archive of the exchange shows French saying, "I'm going to keep talk ..."
Giessel pounded her gavel for a break and his microphone was cut. He continued to talk for about a minute with video still being recorded, but it would take a skilled lip reader to interpret what he said.
As it happened, the Senate went into session about 2½ hours later. Senate rules allow a senator to speak on any topic, and French, this time his microphone live, said he wanted to speak "on the subject of 'unprofessional.' "
French said he was less concerned about being called unprofessional than "what it says about the Legislature." He said his request for oaths was based on an unchallenged statute on the books for some 65 years.
"It's hard to make a case that you would be somehow acting unprofessionally by conducting yourself within the confines and the boundaries of the Alaska state statutes," French said. "What does it say about us when we think that it's unprofessional to use these statutes in the furtherance of our duties?"
French noted he had worked in the oil industry himself for 12 years.
"I don't work for them any more -- I work for the people in my district and they expect me to do my job and that sometimes means asking uncomfortable questions and trying to get to the bottom of things," French said. "I think there's some suggestion perhaps that my request was out of bounds because who would ever say something that wasn't true -- how can an oil industry person ever say anything that wasn't true?"
Not backing down, Giessel took to the floor herself to speak "on 'unprecedented and unprofessional.' "
"It's unfortunate we have to have this kind of duel on the floor," she said. Acknowledging that the use of sworn testimony wasn't quite without precedent, she said it was last used by the Legislature in 1997.
"We are to conduct ourselves with some decorum, and to spring that on people who are coming to testify would simply be unprofessional of us," Giessel said. "I'm not an attorney, as the previous speaker is, but it is my understanding that the preparation for testimony under oath is a different type of preparation than simply coming and providing information."
As the Senate broke, French said as he was leaving the chamber that his request was hardly extreme. "You can't contest a traffic ticket without taking an oath," he said.
At her desk in the chamber, Giessel talked to Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla.
Doesn't Congress swear in witnesses? a reporter asked.
"Yes, but we're not Congress, aren't we?" Giessel said.
"This is redneck Alaska," Huggins said.
"There was no criminal activity that was being investigated," she said as Huggins called her away.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or (907) 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER