Dunleavy, Clarkson try end run around state ethics law with regulation for free legal help
Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson want to amend state ethics rules with a new regulation allowing a governor and attorney general to approve free state legal help for each other in case of an ethics act complaint.
In proposed regulations released Tuesday, Clarkson’s office proposed that if the governor or lieutenant governor are accused of violating the ethics law, the AG can decide that state attorneys should provide a free defense with state money. And if the AG is accused, the governor can make the same gift to the attorney general.
In short, Dunleavy would have the power to decide if Clarkson deserves free legal help. Clarkson, who owes his job to Dunleavy, would have the power to decide if Dunleavy or Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer deserve fee legal help.
It’s a perfect circle of power and a serious conflict of interest.
Has a complaint been filed against one of the three that prompts this proposal? If so, it would confidential.
The idea for free legal help in ethics cases came from the “staff of a state agency,” perhaps from Clarkson himself. The proposal claims that the change would cost no money, which is obviously false and dependent upon the nature of whatever ethics complaints might be filed.
If the governor really wants this to happen, he should do it the right way—introduce a bill and try to get the Legislature to approve free legal assistance for himself, the lieutenant governor and the AG.
If he does so, legislators might ask: Why limit free legal help with ethics complaints to one cabinet member, the AG, instead of everyone appointed to top jobs by the governor?
Or why is would be appropriate to have the AG, who is appointed by the governor, allowed to decide if his boss deserves free legal help in ethics cases?
Many more questions would follow. Juneau attorney Libby Bakalar raises the pertinent ones in a blog post and public comment she submitted to the state about the proposal.
Bakalar, a former assistant attorney general, was fired by the Dunleavy administration for comments about President Trump and is in court challenging the legality of her firing.
In her comments on the regulations, she identified the glaring problem with the Clarkson plan for free legal help.
“The conflict of interest and lack of transparency here should be obvious. These regulations allow the target of an Ethics Act complaint to use their own public employees to shield them from such complaints at their say-so,” she wrote.
“The effect of these changes is that when a member of the public makes an Ethics Act complaint against the governor, the lieutenant governor, or the attorney general, these individuals can decide by executive fiat to expend public resources to defend what may be their own misconduct,” she wrote. “This is not a proper use of Department of Law labor.”
She said nothing in the law “suggests that Department of Law resources should be deployed to defend three specific high-level state appointees against their own potential violations of the Ethics Act with the stroke of a pen, under some meaningless and subjective rubber-stamp standard.”
These regulations should be withdrawn by Clarkson. It is a misuse of the regulatory process to enact this change and avoid taking the matter to the Legislature. This proposal appears to be driven by a desire to avoid legislative scrutiny.
The Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act declares “that a fair and open government requires that executive branch public officers conduct the public's business in a manner that preserves the integrity of the governmental process and avoids conflicts of interest. . .”
Clarkson should withdraw these proposed regulations about giving each other free legal help at state expense. It is a misuse of the regulatory process to try to enact this change in a sneaky manner, avoiding legislative scrutiny.