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Amid allegations of secrecy, state restores online checkbook detailing spending

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 2, 2016

A state website that details public spending is once again listing recent expenditures after a seven-month hiatus that prompted the Alaska Republican Party to accuse the Walker administration of suppressing information.

Alaska Checkbook Online has listed payments to thousands of vendors and contractors dating back to 2007, after former Gov. Sarah Palin ordered state expenditures to be posted publicly.

But the updates stopped in June as the state transitioned to a new accounting system called IRIS.

Republicans blamed the lack of information on Gov. Bill Walker. The party's communications director, Suzanne Downing, said in a Jan. 26 statement that Walker wanted to keep state spending secret and that Alaskans "are only getting the fiscal information that he wants them to have."

Asked if he was being secretive, the governor replied with a one-word statement sent by his press secretary, Katie Marquette:

"No," it said.

Scot Arehart, finance division director in the Department of Administration, blamed the problem on the state's upgrade to IRIS.

New coding created complications associated with making sure that 27 confidential categories of state spending were not unintentionally posted, such as Child in Need of Aid payments and medical payments, both of which are protected under federal privacy laws, he said.

Arehart is responsible for implementing IRIS statewide and led the team that fixed the online checkbook. He said he was appointed by former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell almost six years ago but was retained by Walker, an independent.

"I am responsible for putting this information out and my problem is to guarantee that no confidential payments are posted publicly because of liability issues that could arise for the state," Arehart said.

"We could get sued" if private information appeared online, he said.

He said he and his team have worked long hours, including weekends, to restore the site, because having as much transparency in state spending as possible is "the right thing to do."

The new data covers a six-month period that ends Dec. 31. Expenses for January will be posted in the coming days, right on time, Arehart said.

The new posting lists thousands of expenses across state agencies, including payments to high-priced consultants for the governor's office that have made headlines, such as $50,000 paid to federal lobbyist Jack Ferguson.

Ferguson, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, was paid for work that lasted a little more than two months. He was hired to provide consulting services on budget and fiscal issues, according to a contract that began in August.

Not all state entities are included in the checkbook, such as the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., the state's representative to the $55 billion Alaska LNG project and an independent public corporation. The Alaska Railroad and the University of Alaska are also excluded.

"Certain entities have their own accounting system," Arehart said.