If you think doing the right thing can’t hurt, think again if you are a member of the Alaska Legislature.
The question of ethical conduct in the political arena has taken center stage this election year in the wake of an FBI investigation into possible violations of legal and ethical rules by certain Alaska lawmakers and individuals.
Some candidates have begun second-guessing the motives of long-time financial contributors and returning their checks, while others have suddenly disavowed longstanding ties with certain groups and individuals. These reactions signal a rush by politicians to avoid any hint of scandal or public antipathy.
But former state Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Wasilla, believes the sudden attention focused on political ethics may be misdirected and potentially counterproductive.
Self-serving politicians have offered up Ogan in recent years as the poster child for problems Alaska politicians can encounter with ethics.
Ogan’s troubles began after he accepted a job working as a local affairs consultant for Evergreen Resources of Denver, Colo. The oil and gas independent wanted to explore some promising areas of the Mat-Su Borough for coalbed methane, a resource that had generated considerable excitement in Alaska’s oil and gas industry.
Ogan said he took extra care to ensure that his job promoting Evergreen’s interests in the Mat-Su Borough never overlapped his legislative duties representing his constituents in Juneau.
Ogan’s record shows he followed, exceeded standardsA close examination of the former lawmaker’s record shows that he actually followed every standard required by the Alaska Legislative Ethics Code and exceeded those standards in his conduct.
A four-term Republican in the Alaska House of Representatives before winning his Senate seat in 2002, Ogan also went out of his way to ensure that his conduct was above reproach.
He consulted his friend, then Alaska Division of Oil & Gas Director Mark Myers, about ways to best avoid conflicts of interest in his dealings with members of the executive branch.
Ogan said Myers advised him to tell people about his job as a consultant for the oil and gas company up front in all of his dealings with the executive branch, and he took that advice to heart.
Myers, now director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said he had many conversations with Ogan, but the advice he gave him was the opinions of a friend and not those of an expert.
Ethics administrator had numerous conversations with OganJoyce Anderson, administrator for Alaska’s Select Committee on Legislative Ethics, said she had numerous conversations with Ogan over the course of several years, giving him confidential advice in writing and on the telephone on many general and specific questions. She also conveyed to him opinions of the ethics committee, as a whole, on various questions.
Ogan also completed a “Disclosure of Close Economic Association Form” in November 2001, making known to the Legislature his financial relationship with Evergreen Resources.
“I know my conduct was ethical, and the reason I know it, is because the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics told me it was,” Ogan said in a recent interview.
When Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, introduced legislation related to coalbed methane exploration and development in Alaska, Ogan said he had nothing to do with it. The measure, he believes, was authored by a Mat-Su Borough lobbyist.
Asked Oct. 26 if Ogan had any involvement with the legislation, Kohring said he was too busy to comment until after the Nov. 7 election.
Bill assigned to subcommitteeOgan said H.B. 69 came to the Senate Resources Committee, and under the Legislature’s ethics rules, he could have shepherded the measure through the committee as its chairman.
Instead, Ogan assigned the bill to a subcommittee chaired by Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, and did not attend the subcommittee meetings.
“When all that stuff came up, he bowed out and asked me to chair a subcommittee on the legislation,” Dyson recalled Oct. 31. “He never even told me why. He just said, ‘I’ve got a conflict of interest, and I need to be excused from this.”
When the bill finally came before the full committee, Ogan said he made the mistake of discussing the legislation, but he left the room when the vote was taken.
All of this was not required by Alaska’s ethics statute, according to Anderson. Ogan had only to declare his conflict on the Alaska Senate floor to meet requirements of the ethics code.
“In my heart of hearts, I never saw anyone take the steps I took to be ethical,” Ogan said.
Yet in the space of a few months, the veteran lawmaker saw his political career trampled beneath a runaway train of public opinion. Alarmed by a host of reports about possible dangers of coalbed methane production, Mat-Su Valley voters in District H condemned Ogan’s role as an Evergreen consultant as a betrayal of their trust.
It didn’t matter that these reports turned out to be untrue, said Ogan. “People can make hay with anything. Politics is the art of managing public perception.”
The resulting groundswell of anti-Ogan sentiment culminated in a recall initiative being placed on the ballot.
Proponents offered to make recall go awayOgan said he knew the recall effort was a political ploy when two of its chief proponents came to him, offering to make the recall “go away in a heartbeat” if he would just introduce legislation to do a buyback program for coalbed methane leases in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys.
“They asked me to do the very same thing that they accused me of doing — to take action in exchange for something of value,” said Ogan. “They abused the whole process.”
The turmoil surrounding the recall also sent the feisty legislator to the hospital with a resurgence of heart problems.
“I’ve always been adamant about my personal honor. I’m a fighter by nature. I’m a former karate instructor, and I like to engage. So it was counterintuitive to let some highly politically motivated people impugn my honor,” Ogan said.
Health concerns and worries about his family ultimately routed the lawmaker from political office in 2004.
“I stood down for health reasons. I had had a full heart attack two years earlier, and it was getting ugly.”
Ogan, now a natural resources specialist with the State of Alaska, said he knows he made the right decision.
“It took me a year to detox, but the past year has been the best year of my life,” he observed.
Still, if Alaska is to maintain a citizen legislature, Ogan is convinced that Alaska’s next governor and Legislature must enact measures to protect the state’s lawmakers, even consultants.
“You can’t discriminate against a whole class of people based on what they do for a living,” he said.
To do so would be to squash the benefit of a legislator’s life experiences being weighed in the process, he said. “My concern is that we’re creating a huge disincentive for successful people from all walks of life to serve in the Alaska Legislature,” he added.