Palin leaves Alaska with a mountain of ethics issues

The raft of ethics complaints against Palin has lawmakers mulling changes to the law, and Palin herself still needs to report a 'garage full' of gifts.

By , Correspondent

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    In this July 26 file photo, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave her resignation speech in Fairbanks, Alaska.
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Sarah Palin is no longer governor, but Alaska is still trying to tie up the loose ends of her time in office.

A host of ethics issues tied to her term as governor remain unresolved. They range from proposed changes to the state's ethics laws to gifts to Ms. Palin piling up in her garage, still unreported to the Alaska Public Office Commission.

It is the aftermath of an extraordinary time in Alaska politics, as Palin burst beyond the bounds of state politics and became a national – and intensely controversial – figure. Now, the state is struggling to cope with the challenges amplified by her notoriety. Ms. Palin’s representatives say she has incurred a legal bill of over $500,000 for almost two dozen ethics complaints that she and her supporters have characterized as false and politically motivated.

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Her financial burden is unfair, agrees State Attorney General Daniel Sullivan, who was appointed by Palin in June. He issued a 19-page analysis last week urging statutory and regulatory changes to the ethics act. Among the significant proposals:

•Sanctions against “bad faith” complaints.

•Empowering the Alaska Personnel Board to summarily dismiss complaints of “habitual” filers “who use the Ethics Act process to harass executive branch employees.”

•Having the state pay for the defense of administration officials charged with ethics offenses.

“[C]itizens may be reluctant to serve in state government – or be inhibited in performing their official duties – if they must bear the cost of defending themselves against unfounded ethics charges related to their state duties,” Mr. Sullivan said in his opinion. The state routinely picks up officials’ legal costs in other matters, he pointed out.

Anchorage Republican State Rep. Bob Lynn is also drafting a new bill that would toss complaints if the complainant breaches confidentiality – as several activists have done by issuing press releases.

Are Palin's problems unique?

But other lawmakers don’t want to change the state ethics act, which was last updated in 2007.

Most Alaska politicians are not likely to face so many complaints because they lack Palin’s penchant for blurring personal and official business, says Don Mitchell, an attorney representing local activist Andree Mcleod, a one-time Palin fan who has filed a pair of lawsuits against her for discussing state business on a private e-mail account.

Citing the ex-governor’s past actions such as making the state pay for her children’s travel and appointing high-school friends to high government posts, he says, "[T]hat kind of stuff, particularly when you look at it collectively, I think it’s idiosyncratic to Sarah’s sort of clueless narcissism."

What does need to be changed, Mr. Mitchell says, is the way state government e-mail is handled. Any electronic communication should be limited to official e-mail addresses, he says, adding that there should be clearer guidelines about preservation of official e-mails.

Palin's practice of using a private Yahoo e-mail account for public business, and of copying her husband on e-mails related to state business, prompted Ms. McLeod's complaint last year.

The administration’s position – even under new Gov. Sean Parnell, who has promised to keep his official business off private e-mail accounts – has been that the legislature must first pass a law banning the practice.

Delay in disclosing gifts

But Palin has had to cave in on a different issue, that of disclosing income and gifts to her and her family.

By Aug. 17, according to the Alaska Public Office of Commission, she will have to report the value of the discount her husband received from snowmobile manufacturer Arctic Cat. As a sponsored racer, Todd Palin is entitled to buy the snowmobile at cost, but the Palins sought not to disclose the financial details, citing propriety trade secrets.

The public offices commission rejected that argument last month, and instructed Palin to disclose all the gifts she received in 2008. Gifts worth more than $250 must be disclosed under state campaign finance law, while the state ethics law requires gifts worth more than $150 to be reported within 30 days of receipt.

Palin has argued that she’s been unable to keep up with the mail and gifts pouring in. But the commission, while recognizing the delay caused by “the unique circumstances of the 2008 presidential election campaign,” insists that the gifts must be reported.

Palin intends to comply with the commission’s order, said her Anchorage attorney Thomas Van Flein.

“My understanding is, we were talking a garage full of bankers’ boxes of mail. It was pretty overwhelming,” he said.

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