Reprimanded assemblyman guilty of being ethical

With all the recent focus on statewide political ethics, a bit of local news may have escaped your attention – the admonishment of East Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Bauer. Following up on a recent Ethics Board finding, the assembly voted Oct. 9 to reprimand Bauer and require him to take an ethics course.

What was Bauer’s ethical misstep? In March, Bauer said, he wrote a letter to Mayor Mark Begich voicing concerns about a potential conflict of interest he felt the mayor should have disclosed concerning a roads and drainage bond slated for the early April municipal elections. At that point, Bauer said, Begich “took an adversarial role instead of doing the right thing.” Bauer followed up by writing a letter to the Anchorage Ethics Board requesting clarification of disclosure practices, and then held a press conference announcing his concerns.

You can go ahead and reread that paragraph if you’re confused. You didn’t miss the obviously unethical part; it wasn’t there.

Bauer’s actions violated a recent rewrite of the ethics code forbidding public statements concerning formal complaints filed with the ethics board, citing breech of confidentiality (AMC 1.15.070K).

I had to have the purpose of this particular bit of the code explained to me. At first, I failed to see the conflict in publicly stating that ethics charges have been filed against someone. What purpose could this prohibition serve except to keep possible ethical violations under wraps – to be discussed in public if, and only if, the board found an individual guilty? This seemed an invitation to potentially unethical behavior from those in charge of maintaining the ethics of others.

There is a valid reason for the assembly’s ethics complaint nondisclosure rule, though. Bauer said, “It was drafted to prevent candidates during election campaigns (from filing) a complaint at the last minute on an opponent and (then claiming) an ethical violation.”

So Bauer’s was a violation of the letter of the code, and not truly the spirit. Bauer said, “In my case it’s kind of gray. There was no campaign; this was not an election for me or the mayor. It had to do with a $15 million road project and a possible conflict of (Begich’s) disclosure.”

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To further complicate matters, Bauer maintains the notification of potential violation didn’t conform to municipal code guidelines, so it doesn’t really count (AMC 1.15.070B).

Bauer admits he sent an e-mail that used the word “complaint.” He said he was seeking clarification on whether Begich’s wife Deborah Bonito’s part ownership of the Kobuk Coffee Company & Gift Shop, located along the E Street corridor slated for $15 million dollars of road improvements, constituted a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed. Bauer claims Begich purchased the downtown historical, tax-free property together with his wife in 1992 or 1993, knowing the project, which he continued to push, would skyrocket the property’s value.

Bauer said, following his public announcement, the deputy clerk e-mailed him the steps necessary to make an “official” complaint, but he neglected to pursue the matter because he had already made the public statement and had been warned of the possible violation.

Regardless of the validity of the violation, Bauer was reprimanded by the assembly and is guilty of an ethics code violation. Why didn’t Bauer fight the accusation? According to Anchorage Municipal Code, persons charged with violating the ethics code are not entitled to trial or council (AMC 14.10.020). If the ethics board says you’re guilty, you’re guilty.

Following his admonishment, Bauer began to research the Ethics Board members. He found that the member of the Ethics Board who filed the complaint against him, James Liszka (UAA Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of philosophy), made a political contribution to Begich in 2006. Liszka’s contribution would have violated the new version of the ethics code’s rules of membership on the ethics board (AMC 1.15.050) – the same code Bauer violated. The previous code didn’t specify contributions as political activity.

Liszka told the Anchorage Daily News he didn’t remember writing the $100 check to Begich last year. The mayor subsequently withdrew his request for Liszka’s reappointment.

Bauer says he’s found that four of the five ethics board members have political ties through campaign contributions previously made to elected officials. Even if these contributions were made before the change in the ethics code, as Liszka’s was, it shows political favoritism – the ethics code was updated to address this for a reason. If 80 percent of the ethics board truly have political leanings, it would seem to constitute a far more serious breach of ethics than one assemblyman’s decision to go public with charges he may or may not have filed.

Here’s the rub: I’m not even feeling the “unethical” bit concerning Bauer’s actions. Publicly addressing an issue you think needs to be examined thoroughly is somehow unethical? No matter how many code violations it constitutes, this doesn’t seem right. Perhaps Bauer merely felt the ethics board might not give his complaint the attention he felt it deserved – they’re all personally appointed by the mayor, and entirely impartial, I’m sure.

Begich called Bauer’s admonishment “appropriate” and went on to say he believed “it is important that all elected officials, including Mr. Bauer, who helped write the code, understand and follow this very important law.”

My question is, exactly how carefully worded is that statement? Are the members of the Ethics Board not held to the same ethical standards, since they’re appointed and not “elected officials”? Two members of the board have already had their reappointments dropped, and if Bauer’s accusations hold true, perhaps the majority of the board is due for an overhaul.

Perhaps it’s time to stop focusing so much on ethics on the panhandle that we neglect to take a good look at how we’re addressing the issues right in our hometown.

Begich should have disclosed the Kobuk Coffee Co. as a conflict of interest, our ethics board members shouldn’t be making campaign contributions and assembly members shouldn’t be punished for speaking out when they see a problem.

Asked if Bauer felt his actions were worth it, given the extra attention he’d drawn to the matter, his response was firm: “Absolutely.”