Bills aimed at conflicts stall out

  • Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, chairs a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 22, 2016, in Juneau. LeDoux has drawn fire for her political action committee that has accepted thousands of dollars in donations from lobbyists and unions. (Photo/File/AP)

Two bills aimed at potential legislative conflicts of interest are stranded or buried in the legislative heap of last minute work hurtling toward the May 17 deadline for the end of the 2017 session.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, introduced Senate Bill 5 to close a loophole that currently allows lobbyists to donate to legislators outside their districts.

SB 5 passed 20-0 on April 7, and made it to the House three days later. There it was read and referred to the Community and Regional Affairs, State Affairs and the Judiciary committees and has yet to receive a hearing.

The bill appears to be aimed at Gabby’s Tuesday PAC, a political action committee formed by Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, that has raised $26,565 and distributed $14,892 to campaigns since its formation in July 2016.

In Alaska, individual candidates are more restricted than political action committees. Lobbyists may not donate to candidates outside their district, but they can donate to a PAC, and that PAC may then distribute funds to candidates in any race.

A PAC can also accept donations during the legislative session while a legislator cannot.

SB 5 would prohibit a PAC controlled by a legislator from accepting or spending donations during the session, and would also prohibit lobbyists from donating to a PAC controlled by a legislator or a candidate for office unless the lobbyist lives in the same district.

State law already prohibits LeDoux or any other sitting legislator from accepting donations during the session, even for her PAC, a key fact that isn’t noted by critics, she said in a May 1 interview.

In closing the loophole, however, Meyer said he is stopping a practice that creates a “bad impression,” and left open the possibility of lobbyists’ influence.

There are currently three PACs run by legislators: LeDoux’s, the Alaska Conservative Leadership PAC by Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla and the Sustain Alaska Fund formed by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.

Eastman raised $1,585 prior to the legislative session, while Seaton took in $7,714.

Currently SB 5 is stuck in CRA with the clock ticking toward a May 17 session end. It’s unlikely the bill will clear hurdles in all three committees prior to adjournment, LeDoux said.

Then there’s House Bill 44, sponsored by Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, and co-sponsored by LeLoux and 12 other House members.

The bill is titled “An act requiring a legislator to abstain from taking or withholding official action or exerting official influence that could benefit or harm an immediate family member or certain employers; and requiring a legislator to request to be excused from voting in an instance where the legislator may have a financial conflict of interest.”

HB 44, like SB 5, appears to be aimed at a particular legislator: Meyer.

Meyer is employed as the investment recovery coordinator at ConocoPhillips Alaska, where he has worked since 2000. He’s held his current position since 2007. Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, also works for ConocoPhillips.

Critics of the current oil tax policy often point to their employment as conflicts that should have prevented them from voting for its passage in 2013, but under current legislative rules any member can object to a request to abstain and require the legislator who declares a conflict to vote.

The bill would have expanded conflicts to include immediate family and would have required members to declare conflicts in committee votes as well.

HB 44 passed the House and is currently in Senate State Affairs where it was referred on April 10. Meyer chairs that committee. Senate committees are now shut down except for those working on the 2018 budget, so that bill is effectively dead until next year.

In tandem with HB 44 was House Concurrent Resolution 1, also introduced by Grenn, that would have changed the House rules to require a majority vote to allow a member to abstain. That measure failed on April 10 when it received only 21 of the needed 27 votes to change the House rules, with Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, joining the Republican minority to oppose the change.

Gabby’s Tuesday PAC

LeDoux is the first sitting legislator in Alaska to form her own PAC, which declared its purpose to “raise money for common sense conservative candidates.”

The concept she had in mind was to support colleagues and candidates in their races, in much the same way it’s done on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Cementing alliances and gaining political clout is one of the goals, often criticized for re-enforcing a too-chummy system.

“I wanted to help some of my friends and my colleagues. This is such a normal thing that virtually everyone in Congress has a leadership PAC, every senator has a leadership PAC,” she said. “Sens. (Dan) Sullivan and (Lisa) Murkowksi, and when (former Sen. Mark) Begich was in office he had one, so they could help their colleagues. I wasn’t thinking it was a big deal.”

APOC statements show she supported 19 incumbents and new candidates for their primary and general election campaigns. Her initial contributions were to fellow Republicans, but she also donated $1,000 to current House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, on Oct. 29, 2016, and raised money for Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, after the election with a December fundraiser.

The donation to Drummond put the PAC on both sides of that race, as LeDoux had also donated to her challenger Mike Gordon in the general election.

“I support the most qualified candidates who I feel have the most to contribute,” she said.

After the Nov. 8 election, LeDoux was among three Republicans including Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and Seaton who switched sides and joined the Democrats to form a new House Majority.

Between Nov. 9 when the new Majority announced itself in a press conference, and Dec. 31, her PAC received $15,553 in donations according to APOC reports.

Most of her expenditures were $250 to $1,000 checks written to 19 campaigns. Two, Reps. Seaton and Grenn, returned $1,000 contributions.

As for why the two legislators returned the campaign donations to Gabby’s Tuesday PAC, Grenn said he did so because he wasn’t certain at the time that the PAC would pass a legal test by APOC.

“I didn’t ask for the money, and I didn’t need it,” Grenn said. “I also wanted more examination of the set-up of such a PAC in the name of transparency.”

A Seaton aide said the representative did not have time to return press phone calls since he is at work on the FY 18 budget in Conference Committee.

Gabby’s Tuesday PAC gave away a total of $13,835 in campaign contributions between July and January, all before the legislative session began.

But it’s been a headache withstanding the political backlash — mostly from colleagues, she said. The state Democrat Party challenged the legality of Gabby’s PAC in an APOC complaint last August.

It alleged that her PAC should be considered part of her campaign and was illegally accepting money from lobbyists outside her district. But APOC disagreed and ruled 4-0 in her favor.

After she joined the Democrats in the House, then the Republicans decided to “beat up on me,” LeDoux said in an interview.

“Both parties beat me up over this. I see no difference in this than how either party does with fundraising,” she said. “When the session is over, you will find a whole bunch of invitations.”

The invites from the Republican Party of Alaska and the Democratic Party seek lobbyist contributions, legislator donations and from the public. It’s hypocrisy to lob mud at her PAC, she says, and ignore the same fundraising tactics of the political parties.

But the issue of where her own Gabby’s Tuesday funding comes from also is at the heart of criticisms leveled her way.

Some 25 registered lobbyists donated funds and unions also donated $5,000.

The total donated by the 25 lobbyists came to around $12,500. They represent a wide range of clients from oil companies, Native corporations, cities, boroughs, utilities and other corporations.

These Alaska lobbyists’ total combined earnings will come to $7.3 million in 2017 from 185 clients, according to filings with APOC.

The debate prior to passing SB 5 centered on the potential for corruption to enter the PAC donation process.

LeDoux points out, however, legislators won’t know where their donations come from.

“It’s all thrown into a pot. Then it’s given out,” she said. “It comes from wide range of donors.”

APOC Paralegal Tom Lucas spelled out what Alaska law prohibits. A legislator isn’t only barred from taking contributions any time the legislature is in session. They also cannot spend the money collected prior to the session’s end for anything other than administrative costs.

A “meet-and-greet,” for example, isn’t allowed. If a legislator such as LeDoux, Eastman or Seaton were to return home to their districts during a break, they couldn’t spend PAC money on a town hall.

Current law spells out that PAC money is not meant to fund the person or organization in charge of the PAC.

Reaction to SB 5

Rep. Eastman said the goal for forming his Conservative Leadership PAC is to “make an effective organization where anyone in Alaska can contribute in support of traditional conservative ideas.” He declined to financially support any legislative incumbent, but did support new candidates or challengers, he said.

SB 5 makes a fundamental mistake, he said, in assuming PAC money comes from lobbyists. He hasn’t received money from lobbyists, either individually or his PAC.

“The main thrust for Meyer’s bill is that it’s aimed at lobbying and political action committees and the nexus between those two things. He (Meyer) runs the mistake of bringing anyone’s PAC into his cross hairs as he fires against people who might try to do something” with lobbyists’ influence, he said.

Wasilla Republican Eastman was drawn toward creating a PAC to offset disadvantages as a new, unknown in politics now serving his first legislative term.

“It’s very difficult to be a new candidate running for office unless you have a party machine behind you,” he said. “Without pros behind you, it’s hard to avoid making mistakes. I’m looking for ways to make that easier for new candidates to get their voices heard.”

Yet, Eastman is also critical of the system that allows the chair of the House Rules Committee to keep legislation such as SB 5 from hearings.

Under Alaska’s current system, powerful Rules chairs can keep bills from ever reaching the floor.

“Rep. Ledoux made it abundantly clear that bill (SB 5) will never be heard simply because she doesn’t like it. I will always disagree with that. It gives unlimited power to committee chairs,” Eastman said.

He advocates that Alaska follow the Colorado legislative model, which, for example, has ruled that all bills receive a hearing. Then if fails, it does so on its lack of merit, not on its lack of debate.

LeDoux said she “wouldn’t speculate” on what she would do with the bill if it makes it to her committee.

HB 44

Many legislatures in the past took up conflict of interest bills similar to HB 44, which asks for “assurances that legislators are representing the public interest, would promote transparency within our state government, and bring Alaska’s laws into conformity with most other states,” according to Grenn’s sponsor statement.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said legislators already operate with a uniform rule that asks members to declare conflicts and to abstain from voting.

During his 18 years in the legislature, he’s seen commercial fishermen vote on fisheries taxes, public employees vote on union wages, teachers vote on education bills, a policeman working on retirement funding.

“They vote all the time and never or seldom declare conflict,” said Coghill, who believes the bill seems aimed at legislators who work in the petroleum industry such as Meyer.

Observers muse on whether the legislation is a tit-for-tat or a larger philosophical difference on the greater kind of harmful conflict potential in the legislature.

The bill strikes Coghill as “petulant” in tone and “mushy in broad language” that you could never totally comply with.

“It’s a way to bully people in a way that is improper. It’s a whip just for certain people – in the oil industry – and I find that distasteful,” he said.

Yet, in his sponsor statement, Grenn wrote that Alaska appears to be the only state that requires unanimous consent of the House of Senate before a legislator with a substantial conflict can abstain from a vote. In other words, everyone has to agree you have a conflict before you can abstain from voting.

In fact, according to Grenn’s research, it’s not clear that anyone in the past has been allowed to abstain from a vote. Currently, a single legislator can force another legislator with a serious conflict of interest to vote.

“Having more in-depth dialogue about the conflict in question and a vote on the record should be required before a conflict is deemed unsubstantial,” he said in the sponsor statement.

Grenn said he’s looking forward to HB 44 undergoing more debate next year because it was brought about at the request of public members concerned about conflicts of interest by legislators.

“It isn’t about any one particular legislator or any one particular industry,” he said. “Thirty states have the language in the bill and it’s time to update Alaska to rebuild public trust.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

05/03/2017 - 12:36pm