Bill would halt no-strings-attached legal defense of governor, attorney general

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

Last fall, the Department of Law released proposed regulations that would allow Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson to approve free legal help for each other to fend off potential ethics complaints.

The prospect of picking up the tab to defend the state’s executives regardless of the outcome didn’t sit well with Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, who introduced legislation this year that would require them to reimburse the state if they’re not completely cleared of wrongdoing. House Bill 201 was heard todayin the House Judiciary Committee.

The proposed regulations specifically allow the attorney general to approve the Department of Law to defend against ethics complaints against the governor or lieutenant governor if the attorney general decides it’s in the public interest to do so. The governor would also be able to approve legal defense for the attorney general under the regulations.

In the past, the state required the governor to personally foot the bill to defend against ethics complaints. Former Gov. Sarah Palin faced more than a dozen complaints before she resigned from office, complaining she was “looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills.”

House Bill 201 would allow state officials to request and receive state help in defending against ethics complaints but would require them to pay it back completely if they’re not cleared of all wrongdoing.

“I don’t think it is appropriate to be spending state dollars in an instance where the governor or lieutenant may have actually done something unethical and has not been completely exonerated,” LeDoux told the committee.

She added that there’s noting personal against Dunleavy or Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer driving the bill but said that she didn’t feel it right for the state to cover people who were ultimately guilty of an ethics violation.

“Just as a matter of course, I think it’s more appropriate that people who have been charged with ethics violations that their fees should be paid if they’re exonerated,” she said. “Really it should be a matter of: Exoneration and your fees are paid. No exoneration and you bear the cost yourself.”

The House Judiciary Committee spent some time discussing the mechanics of how the legislation would work. Whether the state would cover the costs up front and require reimbursement in the event of conviction or whether it would require the governor or lieutenant governor to cover the legal fees themselves and be reimbursed upon exoneration.

There was also some talk about legal fees are awarded in court cases where prevailing parties can typically recoup some, but not all the legal fees.

It’s not clear if the governor is currently facing any ethics complaints as such material would be confidential until resolved. The administration did not weigh in on the proposal during today’s hearing.

The House Judiciary Committee held the bill and could make changes before advancing it to the next step in the legislative process.

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