The five members of the Alaska Legislature with formal legal training are opposing a rules change by the Alaska Department of Law that would allow the department to freely defend the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general from ethics complaints.
Monday is the deadline to submit public comments on the proposal, and the five lawmakers are urging the department to reconsider, saying that the change would encourage corruption by the state’s top executives.
“When they first announced it a month ago, I was like, meh. But then I looked at it and was like, whoa, this is a big deal!” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage.
“I think it’s a recipe for corruption,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
The proposal was introduced in October and says that if the attorney general deems it to be in the public interest, the state “may provide legal representation to the governor or lieutenant governor to defend against” an ethics complaint. In the case of a complaint against the attorney general, the governor or lieutenant governor can approve the help.
The department said the intent is to protect the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general from the cost of defending against “frivolous” complaints and did not come in response to a particular incident. It is difficult to tell the extent to which frivolous complaints are filed — all complaints are confidential unless upheld, which is part of the problem, the legislators said.
As proposed, they said, there would be no way for the public to know that the state was defending an official from a complaint that would also be kept confidential.
One of the strongest statements against the rules change has come from Wielechowski, who collected the support of Josephson and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, in a comment against the proposal. (Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, and Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, plan to submit comments separately.)
“I kind of think it’s ridiculous, that rule change,” LeDoux said.
Wielechowski obtained a 15-page legal opinion from the Legislature’s own legal department saying the proposal creates several possible constitutional conflicts of interest.
By phone, Wielechowski said the Alaska Department of Law is charged with enforcing the state’s laws, and effective defense means it would instead have to try to poke holes in those same laws.
He pointed to a 2009 attorney general opinion from Dan Sullivan, who now serves as one of Alaska’s two U.S. senators.
In that year, Sullivan ruled that “defending individual officers against ethics complaints would ... create an unacceptable conflict” for the Department of Law.
“There seems to be a sense of impropriety,” said Olson, who attended law school but does not practice law in the state.
“I think there is a very strong indication that more abuse will be going on, from what I see is happening,” he said.
If the Department of Law proceeds with the rule change, the Alaska Legislature could block it legislatively.
“I hope there’ll be enough political will to pass that,” LeDoux said.
Claman said he would likely be supportive and would take other steps.
“I would also expect to look very carefully at the Department of Law’s budget and look carefully at budget language that specifically would not provide funding to perform this function,” Claman said.
Though the Department of Law said the new rule could be put into place without additional cost, he doesn’t believe that’s accurate, and with spending going down, every penny matters.
“My concern, first and foremost, is that we are putting a higher priority on defending the governor … than doing something that everyone agrees we should be doing, such as prosecuting criminals,” he said.