Politics & Government

Alaska debates ethics rules raised during Palin's tenure

JUNEAU — A legislative committee on Monday took up ethics issues that erupted during the Palin administration, but it's not clear whether the panel intends to take any action.

Attorney General Dan Sullivan has proposed state rules establishing when it's appropriate for the state to pay for the travel of family members of the governor or lieutenant governor. Another proposal sets out when the state should pay legal bills for state officials defending against ethics complaints.

Former Gov. Sarah Palin was hit with numerous ethics complaints during her 2 1/2 years in office. She said she quit in part because of what she called frivolous ethics complaints and personal legal bills amounting to an estimated $600,000.

Most of the ethics complaints against Palin were dismissed. But she settled one by reimbursing the state more than $8,000 for her children's air travel.

Some parts of the package Sullivan is proposing go beyond the Palin-era controversies. For instance, another proposed rule change would do away with a requirement for state officials to disclose as gifts any travel for state business paid by others. But they still would have to file travel reports, which would be public.

Sullivan is trying to make the changes through new state regulations, which don't need legislative approval.

Oversight comes from the joint House-Senate Administrative Regulation Review Committee, which examines regulations to make sure they are allowed under state law.

The panel agreed to hold a public hearing on the ethics measures after being pushed by Palin critic Andree McLeod. House leaders also requested it, said state Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, who is the committee chairman.

Under the proposed rules, the state could cover the costs of defending a public official against ethics complaints if the official were exonerated, Assistant Attorney General Judy Bockmon told the committee.

Travel would be covered if the presence of a family member is required for state business or has a public purpose. The proposal says that would include a state-sponsored event that the family of the governor or lieutenant governor usually attends, or an event in which the family member is representing the state.

State Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, asked Bockmon whether state law gives any guidance on paying for family travel.

It doesn't, she said.

In that case, why try to decide when it's appropriate -- maybe it shouldn't be permitted at all, Guttenberg responded.

That's up to the Legislature, Bockmon said. There might be value to the state for the family to attend. It depends on the nature of the event.

State Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said it might just save worry and time for a governor with young children to bring them along.

McLeod, who filed a number of ethics complaints against Palin and her staff, urged the committee to reject the changes.

"Are these changes valid? Do they improve the standards of public service? Do they promote the faith and confidence of the people in this state in their public officers? I submit that they do not," McLeod told the legislative committee.

McLeod said private citizens with questions about whether a public official has crossed a legal or ethical line can't get ethics opinions the way state employees can. So the public has no recourse except filing complaints to get answers, she said.

The Executive Branch Ethics Act is important, and the attorney general shouldn't be trying to change the law, another Palin critic, Zane Henning, told the committee. The Legislature should make any needed changes, he said.

"I object to the entire process that is being pushed through here," Henning said.

The ethics law needs reform, but not in the way the attorney general wants, Henning said. Elected officials, not the governor-appointed Personnel Board, should oversee ethics complaints against state officials, he said.

Both of his complaints against Palin were dismissed. One involved an interview about the vice presidential campaign that she gave to Fox News in her state office; the other concerned the fact she collected state expense payments while living in her own home in Wasilla.

Henning's concerns about the Personnel Board seemed to resonate with legislators.

"I'm just wondering is there maybe too close of a relationship there," state Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, asked during the hearing.

Bockmon told the committee an independent counsel investigates ethics complaints against the governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general in an effort to separate the Personnel Board from those high-level officials.

The committee can't halt the regulations from taking effect during the annual legislative session, but can express disapproval and propose new laws to override any objectionable regulations.

The Department of Law has solicited public comment and held a hearing on the ethics changes, Bockmon said. The period for comment has ended and the department must now decide what to do. It could adopt the provisions as is or with minor changes, or let the matter drop with no action.

The committee hasn't yet decided how to proceed, Keller said.