Empire Editorial: Keep trust alive by funding public integrity

  • Sunday, February 28, 2016 1:04am
  • Opinion

The budget cuts aren’t easy this year. The easy cuts were done last year.

Now, the Alaska Legislature’s job is to spread the pain and ensure everyone shoulders the burden of budget cuts equally.

With the state facing an annual deficit of $3.7 billion – a figure rising every day oil is below $56 per barrel – there’s no other option. Even with higher taxes on Alaskans and spending earnings from the Permanent Fund, the state’s budget still must be cut to break even.

We understand the difficulty of the job facing lawmakers, but we feel obliged to speak out against one particular cut. This cut does not just affect a government program; it goes to the heart of the public’s trust in government itself.

In late January, following a series of deaths in state prisons, Gov. Bill Walker and Attorney General Craig Richards held a press conference announcing their intention to create a new “public integrity unit” within the Alaska Department of Law.

That unit is necessary, Richards said, because in a “post-Ferguson” world, the public requires assurance that its police and public officials can be held accountable.

The five-person public integrity unit within the state’s Office of Special Investigations was intended to provide that assurance.

We say “was” because last week the Alaska House Finance subcommittee for the Department of Law nixed $318,700 in funding intended to pay for the unit. Now, it isn’t clear whether the state will have enough money to pay for an effort intended to investigate lawmakers, police officers and other public officials accused of wrongdoing.

The need for this special unit was unfortunately highlighted earlier this month when Barrow Fire Chief Vincent Nageak was shot and killed by a North Slope Borough police officer.

The incident is under investigation by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, and when investigators are finished, they will forward their work to the Office of Special Investigations – the same unit that is now targeted for cuts.

Police-involved shootings wouldn’t be the the unit’s only work. It would also investigate public corruption. The need for such investigations is clear: Late last year, the mayor of the North Slope Borough came under scrutiny when it was discovered that she had used public funds to send relatives to Outside basketball camps and buy gifts to give to the governor and other visiting dignitaries.

It was 10 years ago this September that the FBI descended upon the Alaska Capitol in what became known as the VECO scandal. The investigations and trials that followed those searches were federal affairs, perhaps because the state lacked the resources to investigate its officials on its own.

Alaskans must have faith that their public officials – police, firefighters and elected figures – will be held accountable if they violate the law. This cut by the Legislature harms not only a single program but all faith in Alaska’s state government.

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