A ballot initiative that would make it a felony for legislators to vote on bills that would financially benefit themselves, their families, or their employers has received state approval for the collection of signatures.
The proposed initiative, sponsored by former state legislator Ray Metcalfe, reads as follows:
Photo by Craig Tuten
Be it enacted by the People of the State of Alaska: Public officials who regulate or legislate competitive advantages for, or direct appropriations to themselves; business partners; clients; immediate family; past, present, or sought-after employers or contributors; donors to independent expenditures supporting their election; and persons profiting from inducing public officials to violate this statute, commit a class A felony.
The initiative application was certified by former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell on November 26, 2014, five days before the expiration of his term in office, upon recommendation by the Alaska Department of Law.
Metcalfe wrote in a press release that “[p]etition sponsors include…one retired legislator who was also the whistle blower in the FBI investigation that resulted in jail terms for six Alaskan… legislators, three lobbyists, and the indictment of Alaskan US [sic] senator Ted Stevens.”
Metcalfe is referring to himself and his role as president of Citizens for Ethical Government, the group responsible for exposing the “Corrupt Bastards Club” and VECO bribery scandal in the Alaska legislature.
In addition to being a state legislator, Metcalfe founded the Republican Moderate Party (RMP) and ran for governor on the RMP ticket in 1998. In 2008, he ran for U.S. Senate on an anti-corruption platform, but lost to Mark Begich in the Democratic primary.
On the initiative website, thebriberystopshere.com, Metcalfe ties his motivation for the initiative directly to Senate Bill 21, a change to the oil tax structure that Metcalfe opposed. He writes, “Two members of Alaska’s Legislature used their seats in the Alaska Senate to remove billions of dollars from Alaska’s revenue stream, diverting that stream into the pockets of their employer.”
The two senators in question are Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage) and Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), both of whom are employed by ConocoPhillips. SB 21, which replaced the previous tax regime known as Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share (ACES), stood to benefit their employer.
Meyer and Micciche both declared a “perceived” conflict of interest, but were forced to vote after another member objected. Under the rules of the legislature, if even a single member objects to a vote recusal, the member with the declared conflict must vote. The name of the objecting legislator is not recorded.
Meyer and Micciche both voted for SB 21, which passed the Senate 11-9. SB 21 passed out of the Special Committee on TAPS Throughput, chaired by Micciche, and Senate Finance, co-chaired by Meyer.Photo by Craig Tuten
SB 21 withstood a citizen referendum in August. Metcalfe was a part of “Stop the Giveaway- Vote Yes on Prop 1” that sought to repeal SB 21. In many ways, he seems to still be fighting that fight, describing the new anti-corruption initiative as “[r]ising from the ashes [of Stop the Giveaway] like a Phoenix.” “The Bribery Stops Here” also has a page with a Youtube video about the oil tax debate.
Like many initiatives, there is debate as to whether the language achieves the author’s intent. In August, Metcalfe seemed to tell Alaska Dispatch News (ADN) that his goal was simply to eliminate quid pro quo contributions and votes. “This is about you getting $1,000 from me and me showing up in your office and saying, ‘Give me something that’s for me,’ he said.
But the initiative language is quite broad and unlike what Metcalfe described to ADN. A reading of the initiative suggests that a legislator would not be able to vote on any bills that might benefit a campaign contributor. In a post-Citizens United world, there would be few legislators able to cast votes under this reading of the initiative.
Metcalfe acknowledges the language is broad and writes it “leaves much to the discretion of judges and juries which is likely to scare an otherwise reluctant Legislature into a compromise.”
He is already prepared for such a compromise. If the legislature accepts a 2,757-word alternative that “The Bribery Stops Here” has drafted, Metcalfe says he will withdraw the initiative.
Though the language is broad, it may not scare legislators as much as Metcalfe would like. The new statutory language created by the initiative would read, in part, as follows:
[p]resumptive political bribery shall be narrowly construed. Actions affecting legislation and/or regulations which similarly impact a broad spectrum of population, and have relatively minor fiscal impacts incidental only to implementation, are exempt. Members of deliberative bodies may absolve themselves of potential conflict by entering their conflict into the record and refraining from voting.
In contrast with the initiative title, this statutory language suggests that Meyer and Micciche may have escaped prosecution were the proposed law in place at the time of their SB 21 votes. Both senators did declare a conflict. The “and” in the final sentence could be problematic in their scenario because they did eventually vote, but they were compelled by the rules of the Senate.
Perhaps what would achieve Metcalfe’s goal is not the initiative as certified by Treadwell, but a change to legislative rules. That is something Meyer told ADN he would consider.
“We’ve always required people to vote on all issues, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t change, and there’s not a better way to do it,” Meyer said. “It’s not going to be easy, but I’m certainly open to listening and looking at it.”
For Metcalfe’s initiative to reach the ballot, “The Bribery Stops Here” must collect about 28,500 petition signatures within one year. He says they will pay signature gatherers $1 per signature.