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How tough are conflict-of-interest rules on Alaska lawmakers?

Pat Forgey
The state capitol in Juneau where the Alaska Legislature meets, whether its lawmakers are conflicted or not. wikicommons

JUNEAU -- As Enstar struggled to get enough natural gas to fill its new underground gas storage facility last summer and make sure the heat stays on this winter in Southcentral Alaska, gas producer ConocoPhillips was exporting liquified natural gas from its Kenai LNG facility.

While testifying before the Senate Resources Committee last month, Enstar Vice President and General Counsel Moira Smith struggled to answer questions from committee members pressing her on the role exports played.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, pressed for information, but Smith was cautious and not terribly forthcoming.

"You answered carefully," Dyson noted, after another unhelpful answer.

Smith had good reason to be careful. On the Senate Resources Committee beside Dyson is Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, whose job outside of representing the Kenai Peninsula in the Alaska Legislature is serving as superintendent of ConocoPhillips' Kenai LNG plant.

Conflict or not? 

ConocoPhillips is the largest oil and gas producer in Alaska, and to Enstar it can be both a business partner and a competitor. In the state capital, Micciche serves as co-chairman of the five-member Senate Special Committee on TAPS Throughput, which seeks to boost flow through the pipeline, and was the first stop for the session's big oil tax revision bill. State conflict of interest laws don't prevent Micciche or other legislators with conflicts of interest from working on -- or voting on -- issues affecting their employers.

Micciche said it is well known in his Kenai Peninsula district that he works for ConocoPhillips and he intends to be careful and transparent to make sure he doesn't step over any ethical lines.

"The appearance is important to me, whether or not there is an actual conflict," he said.

So how much does Micciche make from his ConocoPhillips job?

"You can check my APOC reports," he said.

Financial disclosure reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission show that Micciche makes between $100,000 to $200,000 a year. The senator declined to be more specific, saying it was an issue of his family's privacy.

"I find the level of reporting adequate for people to understand the level of my family interests," he said.

The Select Committee on Legislative Ethics has ruled Micciche and other lawmakers who work for companies with business before the Legislature can act and vote on issues affecting the fortunes of those companies. Simply being an employee doesn't mean there's a conflict. To rise to that level, the legislator would have to have an ownership interest in the company or the company would have to reward the legislator for their work in some tangible way, an advisory opinion from the ethics committee has determined.

That opinion was requested by Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, another ConocoPhillips employee. Meyer said he didn't think he had a conflict, but sought the opinion to clear the air on the issue.

'Not involved in investment decisions' 

Micciche said he's just an employee -- not someone who makes policy or has an ownership interest in ConocoPhillips. He takes a leave of absence to serve in the Legislature.

"I began as a roustabout -- entry level -- and more or less outlived everyone else at the plant, if you will," he said. "I'm not involved in their investment decisions."

One issue before the Legislature this year is state support for an in-state natural gas pipeline, a pipeline that could provide a source of natural gas to continue exports through the Kenai LNG plant.

Micciche said that his job doesn't mean he has a conflict on that issue. "It's just a job, we all have one," he said. "If I'm not employed there, I'll be employed somewhere else."

Legislators earn an annual salary of $50,400 plus additional per diem and expenses that can take their state pay higher. While the Legislature officially meets for 90 days per year, additional duties and possible special sessions can make other full-time work problematic.

Many do hold jobs outside the legislature, however.

Even if Micciche decides he had a conflict of interest, he'll likely wind up voting anyway. He said he’ll leave that decision up to his Senate colleagues. "At times I may very well have a conflict, and when I do I'm going to declare that and let the body decide whether I act on that particular issue," he said.

If the past is a guide, that means he'll be voting on those issues. Despite a state law calling or legislators to "avoid conflicts of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest," what happens in practice is quite different.

Look to founding fathers

Typically, when legislators believe they have a conflict, they’ll ask for permission to abstain from voting. If there’s even a single objection -- often there’s a chorus -- they're required to vote, under legislative rules. The objections are verbal. No record of who objected is created. That system has broad support across party and caucus lines.

That's a process that an ethics consultant said was unique to Alaska and raised ethical concerns, but which hasn't been changed in the years since.

Some legislators say they're more worried about their colleagues abstaining to avoid politically risky votes than they are about a lawmaker’s job influencing his or her vote.

"Because a person works for the oil industry doesn't mean they're corrupt," said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage. "They can still make a very good decision for the right reason, whether I agree with them or not."

Micciche said the nation’s founding fathers voted on issues in which they had financial interests, and Alaskans need legislators from all walks of life. That's especially as true with the oil industry, he said. "They're 90 percent of our revenue stream, it's not so bad to have some folks who have some knowledge of the industry," he said.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said Micciche's constituents knew what they were getting when then they elected him. "I don't have a problem with Peter Micciche at all, he is up front about (his job) and his convictions, I have zero concerns about him and his integrity," Huggins said.

Legislators can still avoid votes by leaving the floor before the vote, a practice that concerns Huggins even more.

"I've seen people run off the floor," he said.

Some legislators have publicly acknowledged that they do that, or that they object to abstentions in hope that others will object if they themselves are forced to declare a conflict.

The ethics committee doesn’t maintain a list of legislators who may have conflicts of interest. Rather, they issue rulings or anonymous advisory opinions that legislators read before deciding how to proceed. 

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com