Empire Editorial: The cost of avoiding bad press

  • Monday, November 23, 2015 1:00am
  • Opinion

Alaska finds itself marred by its third major scandal in less than a decade. First was a VECO bribery scandal that ended the careers of several politicians and left a dark cloud hanging over the capital; then the National Guard sexual assault scandal that likely aided in former Gov. Sean Parnell being voted out of office; and now it’s been revealed the Department of Corrections is responsible, at least in part, for the deaths of Alaskans.

It seems these are the costs of avoiding a little bad press now and then.

We’ve said it already but it needs saying once more: Alaska’s Sunshine Laws are an affront to transparency in how our government works. The state consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation in this category. It seems 2015 was no different. According to the Center for Public Integrity’s recent report, Alaska got an F grade, again, when it comes to open records laws (see the story in today’s paper). We didn’t need a report to know this, however, as we experience it often.

The Empire requested information about the Aug. 14, 2014, death of Joseph Murphy. Murphy died while in custody at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. He was never charged with a crime and was held so he could sleep off a drunken stupor.

The Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Empire for information such as security camera footage and cause of death was denied, just as many other requests to DOC in recent years have been. We’ve even been told in the past to not bother asking because the answer would be “no.”

Following the release of a Nov. 17 report outlining problems within the department, some that appear to be outright criminal, we understand why transparency wasn’t welcome at DOC. To let the public in would have been to expose its dark secrets. But it also might have saved a few lives if issues had been exposed sooner.

When media outlets are prevented from watchdogging government entities fully, it should come as no surprise when issues like these blow up. Instead of reporting on a single incident the problem continues to fester until the lid is blown off by a third-party investigation and every piece of dirt is exposed. People lose jobs, leaders resign their posts and lawsuits are quick to follow. And all to avoid accountability and some bad press. Alaskans deserve better, but we’re not holding our breath it will get better.

These barriers must come down, however, and we’re looking to Gov. Bill Walker to lead the way.

Walker said from the beginning he wanted Alaska’s natural gasline project to be transparent. That’s a start, but a pipeline isn’t capable of raping or killing Alaskans. If transparency truly is important to the governor, he’ll extend it to every branch of government.

Following the scathing report about the problems in DOC, Walker said the only change he will oversee is “the change at the top,” referring to the resignation of DOC Commissioner Ronald Taylor, who was on the job for less than a year after being appointed by Walker in January.

That’s a typical political move that in the grand scheme will accomplish little. Commissioners are too far removed from the majority of employees to see what’s happening on the ground floor. That’s where the press can step in and help — if the state were willing to let us do our jobs.

Alaska has a long way to go to be transparent, and time and again Alaskans have been given reason not to trust the government to police itself. If nothing changes moving forward, however, it will only be a matter of time before the next scandal is exposed. The National Guard scandal helped Walker win office, but the DOC scandal or another like it will win the election for someone else next time. Replacing commissioners isn’t enough to deter such egregious problems. Shining a light on these issues when they first surface is necessary, and that means accepting some bad press now and then.

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