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Alaska oil tax cut repeal initiator files anti-corruption proposal

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 29, 2014

Targeting what he believes is corruption in the state Legislature, political activist Ray Metcalfe has filed an application with the Alaska Division of Elections to launch a new citizen initiative aimed at stopping lawmakers from voting on bills that help their donors, their employers and others.

The last initiative Metcalfe launched -- the proposed repeal of the oil-production tax cut known as Senate Bill 21 -- touched off a massive battle with industry and the state's largest oil producers, which funneled millions of dollars into campaign efforts to stop it.

Senate Bill 21 is expected to remain in place. Ballot Measure 1, voted on this month, is failing by what its supporters have said is a decisive margin.

Metcalfe said his latest initiative has broad goals in mind, such as preventing corporations from taking control of the Legislature. If it had been in effect, Senate Bill 21 would have failed because it would have prevented lawmakers with ties to the oil industry from voting for it, Metcalfe said.

Two of those senators who work for ConocoPhillips said they're open to improvements. One, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said his position on the tax law reflected the views of his constituents, who rejected the repeal by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Micciche said he detests corruption and would work to stop it if he saw it. "First, I'm not aware of any in Juneau at the moment, and if I were, I would be proudly blowing the whistle to bring it into the light of day with an expectation of harsh justice," he said in an emailed statement.

Micciche said Metcalfe's new initiative is similar to something the activist tried to foist on the public in 2009. Micciche suggested that Metcalfe launched his latest effort just before the election to attract more last-minute repeal votes.

Metcalfe's insinuations of impropriety are "shallow," said Micciche, the superintendent at Conoco's LNG plant in Nikiski and a longtime employee there.

"I grew out of calling everyone that disagrees with me a criminal in seventh grade," Micciche wrote. "Perhaps we can get others to mature out of the practice as well toward a more constructive dialogue."

Metcalfe, calling himself the whistleblower who exposed bribery during the FBI corruption investigation that ended in 2010, delivered his application Thursday with 148 signatures -- 100 qualified signatures are required.

The prime sponsors are Metcalfe, Anchorage trial attorney Hal Gazaway and Thomas Schulz, a retired Alaska judge living in Ketchikan, Metcalfe said.

If the measure is certified and signature booklets are received, an incorporated group that had supported the tax-cut repeal will rename itself, register with the Alaska Public Offices Commission and organize the signature-gathering, Metcalfe said.

"Stop the Giveaway! Vote Yes on 1" will be called "The Bribery Stops Here Inc."

The group's website includes a statement titled "Operation Vampire Hunt." It refers to Metcalfe's attempt "to drive a wooden stake through the heart of the corruption that grips Alaska's Legislature."

The initiative would make it a class A felony for public officials to direct appropriations or provide competitive advantages to "favored persons." The list includes campaign contributors, employers, business clients, immediate family and donors to independent expenditures supporting a candidate's election.

Someone with a conflict can escape penalty by not voting, Metcalf said.

Currently, Alaska's "citizen legislature," with most lawmakers employed in other full-time work, generally requires that members vote even if they have a conflict of interest. Rules require lawmakers to declare conflicts, but only unanimous approval by the House or Senate can allow the legislator to abstain from voting.

Both Micciche and Sen. Kevin Meyer, investment recovery coordinator for ConocoPhillips, declared a potential conflict before the vote on Senate Bill 21, a key law that governs how Alaska collects much of its revenue. Colleagues objected to their abstaining.

Both men have said they have obligations to their constituents to vote on matters important to their district. In Meyer's South Anchorage district, 61 percent of the voters opposed the repeal.

Meyer said he thinks it's great Metcalfe has launched a new initiative. He's open to listening to any measure that treats conflict of interests fairly.

"When you have a citizen legislature, everyone will have a conflict from time to time," Meyer said. "But as long everyone is treated the same and it's implemented fairly and equally, I'm all for it."

Meyer said he and Micciche have always tried to recuse themselves before potential conflicts.

The Legislature's approach to the issue goes back decades, he said. "We've always required people to vote on all issues, but that's not to say we shouldn't change, and there's not a better way to do it," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but I'm certainly open to listening and looking at it."

Micchiche said the existing Legislative Ethics Act is "fairly well-considered, strict, enforceable and functional."

It "protects Alaskans from an actual conflict where a legislator could physically benefit financially from a vote, yet it allows districts and constituents to be represented in all other cases," he said.

"The reality is I happen to be a senator from the commercial/sport fishing and natural gas industries representing a district of folks that are commercial and sport fishermen that work in the oil and gas industry," he said.

Micciche said that kind of expertise is valuable.

"When the legislators have no or little applicable industry or sector-related experience, you place all power into the hands of the very well-compensated lobbyists," he said in his emailed statement.

Micciche said he once returned pizza to a lobbyist who had tried to buy lunch for his staff. It was related to House Bill 77, a regulatory rollback that industry supported. The measure died in the Senate this spring after facing strong public opposition.

"Lobbyists have no effect on my decisions in the several industries I intimately understand because I can identify a paid message from a mile away," he said.

Like Meyer, Micciche said he's open to improvements.

"If a well-considered thought were to come along improving the ethics process in the Legislature, I would clearly support it," he said.

Metcalfe seems willing to talk. Asked if his initiative is so broad it would criminalize even harmless donations -- a teacher contributing to a lawmaker who then votes to put more money into education -- Metcalfe said the proposal is not about "public policy."

"This is about you getting $1,000 from me and me showing up in your office and saying, 'Give me something that's for me,' " he said.

The initiative's "49 words leaves a lot up to the common sense of a jury and judge," he said.

But Metcalfe has also prepared a detailed 2,700-word alternative the Legislature can accept as law if it thinks the 49-word initiative is too vague, he said.

"We'd be happy to accept that, but we're not interested in something that's full of loopholes. We want something that takes care of the problem."

Clearly something needs to change, Metcalfe said.

"If we do not fix this, corporations could compete for legislative seats and appropriate assets to themselves because today that is legal," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Sen. Kevin Meyer is facilities support coordinator at ConocoPhillips in Alaska. His correct title is investment recovery coordinator.

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