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Vol. 12, No. 4 Week of January 28, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Ethics debate heats up in Juneau

Experts advise state legislators on strategies to restore public trust via overhaul of rules of conduct for citizen Legislature

Rose Ragsdale

For Petroleum News

Republican leaders in the Alaska Legislature have vowed to draft ethics legislation to close loopholes in state laws, and Gov. Sarah Palin is planning to craft her own ethics package.

Thanks to presentations Jan. 18-19 by two national ethics experts and an ethics white paper recently presented to the governor, Alaska leaders may finally have the tools needed to get it right.

The new fervor for ethics reform in Juneau reflects growing public pressure in recent months to clean up what many Alaskans perceive to be state offices run amok.

The ethical standards of Alaska’s part-time citizen Legislature grabbed the spotlight during state elections last fall after FBI agents raided the offices of a half-dozen lawmakers Aug. 30.

The issue has taken on new urgency this year since a federal indictment on bribery charges against former state Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, and former Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, was fined more than $5,000 by the Alaska Public Offices Commission Jan. 11 for failing to disclose the names and payments of several clients of one of his consulting firms.

Meanwhile, the FBI investigation is ongoing and many predict more disclosures of wrongdoing.

Behind the scenes, the Legislature’s Select Committee on Ethics and a two-member ethics team appointed by Palin have come forward with significant tools to aid the reform process.

The select committee, which has both legislators and private citizens for members, invited two nationally known experts on political ethics to conduct workshops for Alaska lawmakers and their staffs Jan. 18-19.

Palin’s team, well-known Republican attorney Wev Shea and former Democratic Anchorage legislator Ethan Berkowitz, wrote the white paper in December to guide Palin in drafting ethics legislation.

Expert urges omnibus ethics bill

Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute on Ethics in Los Angeles, spoke Jan. 18 on “Ethical Dimensions of Political Leadership.”

Josephson, who fresh out of law school interned for former Alaska Sen. Ernest Gruening in the 1960s, cited Gruening’s strong ethical standards. Gruening was one of only two U.S. senators to vote against the Vietnam War in 1964.

He told the lawmakers that every single day that they serve their ethical standards will be tested, and it is human to calculate the consequences.

“We often know there is a gap between what we want to do and what we should do and then we find ourselves rationalizing,” he said. He cited at least 13 classic fallacies that people use to justify their unethical decisions and actions.

Ethics reform should be about creating an environment in the Legislature where people don’t calculate and where they don’t just avoid wrongdoing but also refuse to tolerate wrongdoing by others, he said.

Josephson said part of the challenge is fundamentally good people who do not report wrongdoing and who do nothing about ethics violations or illegalities when they become aware of them.

“In the public sphere, perception is everything,” he said. “The accusation, itself, blemishes your reputation and it blemishes the (entire Legislature).”

Josephson observed that people in power are the ones most subject to temptations in our society, and in a healthy Legislature, members can more easily resist temptation.

“Ethics rules are only as good as the body that enforces them,” he said. “The purpose of ethics laws is not to make the dishonest person honest.” Rather it’s to provide a healthy Legislature with the tools to aggressively root out the “infection” that is damaging legislatures across the nation.

“I would argue that if you don’t make standards, you, as a body, will be subject to the person with the lowest standards,” he said.

Josephson told the lawmakers they should be outraged when they hear about inadequate disclosures and other ethics violations. Instead, legislators tend to circle the wagons, become defensive, making excuses for lawmakers who go astray.

“I have yet to see a Legislature that addresses what could happen,” he said. “They tend to do as little as possible.”

Josephson urged Alaska’s lawmakers to develop the broadest, most comprehensive legislation they can envision and work to get it enacted into law.

“I promise you that it will not make your life harder,” he said. “But if you address the problems one by one, something new will always come up. There’s always a legal way to do a wrong thing. You will be dealing with ethics violations forever. You are sentencing yourself to endless Chinese torture, year after year, this new leak and that new scandal.

“If you are not willing to go beyond the rules, all you’re doing is making yourselves vulnerable to the legally clever.”

Choose between right and right

Butch Speer, Clerk of the House of Representatives in the Louisiana State Legislature, spoke to Alaska’s legislative staffers Jan. 19.

After explaining that he has worked for the Louisiana State Legislature for 34 years, he asked how many found it ironic that he had been invited to speak on legislative ethics.

“My only answer is that I’ve seen it all. It’s all happened in my sight,” he said, referring to the pervasive perception that Louisiana politics is rife with corruption.

Speer defined ethics as not just following the law, but also “obeying the unenforceable.”

Said another way, ethics is the choice to do more than the law requires and at the same time, to do less than the law allows, he said.

He cited the Alaska rule, which allows lawmakers to accept gifts valued up to $250. He said legislators can’t take that much in gifts and still be ethical.

“Each of you have to define what values you bring to the job,” he said. “Ethical dilemmas are not decisions between right and wrong. They are decisions between doing right and right.”

Speer listed five tests a person can apply to such a dilemma to make the ethical choice: legal, code of conduct, gut feelings, front page and role model. While the first three tests are fairly apparent, he said one applies the front page test by asking yourself whether you would mind seeing your proposed action/decision splashed across the front page of the local newspaper.

Take the role model test by asking yourself if your personal role model would do it, he added.

Speer said it’s also important to make certain the dilemma is really yours and not your friend’s or your employer’s.

If you go through all these stages and still have an ethical dilemma, he advised applying the concepts of truth vs. loyalty; self vs. community; short-term vs. long-term; and justice vs. mercy to the situation.

If that doesn’t clear it, he suggested using end-base thinking, where one does what is best for the greatest number of people, or rule-based thinking where one picks the choice that should apply to everyone else in the world.

“Use these principles to reach and follow the highest right,” he concluded.

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