Two years back, the Alaska Legislature’s in-house ethics enforcers asked a former lawmaker to pay more than $18,000 in fines and write a public letter of apology. They said that while he was in office, the Juneau lawmaker had broken several ethics laws, and warned of consequences if he failed to comply.
But he didn’t pay. He didn’t write the apology letter. And the ethics enforcers didn’t do anything about it. This is a closer look at that case, and what the Legislature’s ethics committee actually does.
For a decade, former Juneau Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch has been in and out of the headlines. Federal prosecutors accused the state lawmaker of illegally seeking a job with the oil field services company VECO in exchange for voting VECO’s way on oil tax legislation. Weyhrauch denied the allegations and fought the charges. Part of his case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2016, nine years after a complaint was filed, the House subcommittee of the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics published an opinion that basically said, yeah, Weyhrauch probably violated three state ethics laws and laid out their demands.
He had 30 days to write the apology and start paying his fines, or else the committee would file formal charges against him.
But Weyhrauch didn’t pay the fine. He didn’t write the letter of apology. And the ethics committee didn’t file formal charges.
“We sent them a response and said, ‘Bring it on,’ you know?” said Doug Pope, Weyhrauch’s attorney in the matter. “You want to charge Bruce Weyhrauch with a legislative ethics violation? Let’s get with it. And they didn’t do anything. … My understanding is that they’ve given up on it.”
In 2013, the House ethics subcommittee put out a similar opinion for another member’s ethics transgressions that, coincidentally, also came with about $18,000 in fines. Alan Dick, a one-term House member from rural Alaska, had ignored clear firewalls that are supposed to separate official work and expenses from his reelection campaign’s. He used his legislative office in Fairbanks as a residence to campaign from. He repeatedly double-dipped on travel expenses with reimbursements from both his campaign and from the state. And he demanded a legislative employee prep him for a candidate debate on state time with state resources.
Dick couldn’t be reached for comment, but Ethics Committee Administrator Jerry Anderson said he’s still paying off his fines in installments.
Another bright contrast: Dick’s case took about eight months from the initial complaint to the subcommittee’s opinion. Weyhrauch’s took more than eight years. Anderson said the committee didn’t pursue Weyhrauch further because so much time had passed.
Weyhrauch’s attorney Doug Pope said if the committee were to escalate, there’s a constitutional fight over due process to be had.
“I mean, it’s been 10 years. 10 years!” Pope said.
The ethics committee’s public meeting minutes don’t address Weyhrauch’s noncompliance. In fact, at the committee’s first meeting after getting Pope’s refusal letter, the minutes say, “Outstanding fine payments continue to be received on a regular basis.”
Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck has had a long tenure on the ethics committee, including through most of Weyhrauch’s case. His recollection was that the committee didn’t consciously decide not to pursue Weyhrauch’s fines and apology letter. It just didn’t consciously act.
So the ethics committee never resolved its Weyhrauch case. But its duties go beyond investigating and resolving ethics complaints.
Tuck said a lot of the committee’s work is proactive, like organizing annual ethics trainings and putting out advisory opinions on super-specific questions lawmakers and legislative employees raise.
“Well one of the things about the ethics committee is it’s not all that black and white,” Tuck said.
Like, can you wear a campaign button while performing legislative duties? Can outside groups hold free lunch and lecture events in the Capitol building? Does sharing a cell phone plan meet the definition of a “close economic association” that must be disclosed?
A 2014 advisory opinion addressed that last question, and it was just applied in November in the latest publicly resolved complaint involving fines. It was against Senate Secretary Liz Clark. She said it was a legitimate oversight on her part.
“Because it was membership in a phone plan with people that are my employees. It was a cell phone plan that we’ve been involved in for years,” she said, from when they were professional peers.
But when she was elected into her supervisor role, that’s when a disclosure became necessary. The fine was $100, and she paid it.
That’s $100 more than Bruce Weyhrauch has paid the committee.
Still, Clark said she respects the ethics committee and its work.
“I just think it’s a very difficult job and I appreciate people that are willing to serve in that capacity,” Clark said.
Ethics training for the incoming legislators and staff is set for early January.