Berkowitz: Make AG an independent office

Alaska Dispatch - October 1, 2010

Saying he wants to restore ethics in government and taking a clear swipe at Gov. Sean Parnell's controversial hiring of two legislators, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ethan Berkowitz on Friday proposed making the state attorney general an independent official separate from the governor's office.

Currently, the attorney general is chosen by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. The AG represents the governor as well as the state but basically works for the governor.

Berkowitz wants to change the structure to make it clear the AG works for the people and not for the governor. The AG would still be chosen by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, but would not be able to be fired by the governor or Legislature except for malfeasance or other serious -- and specifically laid out -- reasons.

"I want an AG who serves the law, serves the justice, and serves the people," he said, "and is not pursuing political ambitions."

Berkowitz pointed to Parnell's appointments earlier this year of two legislators -- Nancy Dahlstrom and Gene Therriault -- to positions in his administration. Parnell has been accused of illegally hiring the two because state law prohibits sitting lawmakers from taking jobs with the administration. Attorney General Dan Sullivan later acknowledged Dahlstrom's hiring was wrong, and Therriault resigned amid public controversy over his hiring.

Berkowitz said an independent AG would have had more of a role in making sure the law was followed and could also pursue action against the governor to force resignations and collect taxpayer money that was misspent -- for instance, on improperly paid benefits.

The AG and the Department of Law also would not be forced to file lawsuits that they didn't support as being in the best interests of the state, Berkowitz said. He has been critical of Parnell's policy to file lawsuits against the federal government, which he sees as politically motivated rather than accomplishing anything.

"I think the AG's office has become increasingly politicized over the last several administrations," he said.

Instead of being represented by the AG, under Berkowitz's proposal the governor would hire a separate legal counsel, as is the case in 46 states, Berkowitz said. He estimated the cost of that to be about $135,000 annually but said it would save taxpayers money in the long run. The state-paid legal counsel would represent the governor's office and any outside attorneys would be paid for by the governor personally, not the taxpayers.

Berkowitz does not favor electing an attorney general because that also carries political conflicts. He thinks independence is better accomplished by an appointed AG who is legally separate and free from the whims of the governor.

Berkowitz also suggested revamping the Alaska Personnel Board to make the members less beholden to the governor. That could be accomplished through limiting them to a single term with no possibility of reappointment. And he would require that a board member could only be removed for cause, not at the whim of the governor.

Berkowitz said he is "adamant" that there should be accountability and transparency in the governor's office. "We have fallen far short as a state in delivering that transparency," he said.

The proposal is another of Berkowitz's "Alaskan Ownership Stake," ways for Alaskans to resestablish control over the state.

Parnell did not respond to a request for comment for this story.