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The Alaska Legislature disgraces us with its legal corruption

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 2, 2017
  • Published February 1, 2017

The Alaska Legislature earns Alaskans' contempt through its own sleazy procedures.

Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, is acting the part of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" by asking for open votes on legislators' conflicts of interest. But despite the resistance he has received, Grenn's bill is really a minimal improvement that would raise Alaska to the low end of what other states tolerate.

Conflict of interest is only one of several areas where our Legislature disregards the laws it makes for others. For example, it ignores the Alaska Open Meetings Act every single day.

The Alaska Senate makes all its important decisions in private. As long as anyone can remember, what happens on the floor has been just for show, after the votes are counted in closed caucuses. The public's business should be done in public.

Travel and per diem scandals are routine. Late last month, ADN's Nathaniel Herz reported Golovin Sen. Donny Olson's use of legislator relocation money to ship building supplies to his village.

Political observers nationally rate Alaska's legislative sleaze on a level with New Jersey or Louisiana. Legal corruption is "very common" in the Alaska Legislature, according to a survey released last year of 250 political reporters and investigative journalists by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

The phrase "legal corruption" is well-chosen. The Legislature's conflict of interest system is a great example. It lets legislators vote every time, no matter how directly their vote will benefit them financially, without breaking the rules.

Here's how it works. A legislator notes a conflict on an upcoming vote — meaning a substantial financial interest in the outcome — and announces that to the House or Senate. If any single legislator objects, the legislator with the conflict is required to participate despite the conflict.

Legislators sometimes act like this is a funny joke. A member rises to state a conflict, and before he or she can finish saying what it is, a voice in the chamber objects. Sometimes it's impossible to tell who has objected and no record is kept.

Under this system, no one ever has a conflict. Occasionally a member with a conscience will walk out to avoid voting on an issue that benefits him or her personally, but that's rare. And illegal. The Alaska State Troopers could be dispatched to force a member to come back and vote.

Grenn's bill would require the body to vote publicly on whether a member has a conflict. He said the legislation simply makes legislative rules reflect state laws that apply to every other governmental body, state and local.

The bill appears to be moving forward in the coalition-controlled House, which is also holding some of its caucus meetings in public. But it is opposed by Republicans, especially those who control the Senate, who argue it is unworkable and would single out oil and gas employees.

The bill is obviously workable. The same process — or something stricter — works for every other legislature in the United States, according to nonpartisan legislative researchers.

The concern about the oil and gas industry is more understandable. The industry needs its employees in the Legislature to protect it from higher taxes.

The 11-9 vote that approved our current oil tax law in 2013, Senate Bill 21, included positive votes by two ConocoPhillips employees, Sens. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. They continue to be key figures in the Senate defending hundreds of millions of dollars of tax credits for their employer.

ConocoPhillips' own conflict of interest rules make employees' obligation to the company clear. The annual certification they have to sign — on pain of dismissal — defines a conflict as, "Any other arrangement or circumstance, including family or their personal relationships, which might dissuade the employee from acting in the best interest of the Company."

Micciche told me he has written on his ConocoPhillips form that in cases of conflict, he would place his state responsibilities higher than the oil company's. He said his research shows his employment does not create a conflict with his legislative service.

For all the legislative dancing about who has a conflict and how it is defined, ConocoPhillips' definition is the commonsense version. If you take a job, you work in the best interest of your employer. If you have two employers with different interests, you have to step back from one.

No one else in American life has a deal like these legislators, taking salaries from two masters while making decisions on their key financial relationships.

These practices have been around for many years — the private meetings, conflicts of interest, junket travel, bogus per diem payments and reimbursements, and so on. Legislators have gone to jail for taking petty bribes in exchange for votes worth hundreds of millions.

Shame on Alaska's voters for allowing the the Legislature to become so decadent.

We got used to thinking of the Legislature as a system for dividing up oil wealth. If legislators wasted billions on failed megaprojects or gave rich tax credits to their favorite industries, it wasn't like it cost us anything. No one wanted to watch the sausage-making.

Now that we're entering a new phase in our history, with fewer freebies and more taxes, it is well past time to clean up the process. Grenn's bill is only a small start.

To legislators, I would say this: You are not all corrupt. Probably most are honest. But your processes make you look corrupt. Show some self-respect.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that the Alaska Legislature violated the Open Meetings Act. The act does not apply to the Legislature.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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