Gov. Murkowski's Use of State Jet may have Violated Law

Some of ex-governor's trips appear to have been used primarily for campaigning.


Gov. Frank Murkowski skirted the advice of state attorneys when he took the state's corporate jet on three trips last summer and spent most of his time campaigning for re-election, a review of state records suggests.

And his failure to reimburse the state for dozens of trips by first lady Nancy Murkowski may have violated the state's ethics law.

State attorneys and the Alaska Public Offices Commission have said it is all right for governors to travel on state aircraft while campaigning as long as the "primary purpose" of such trips is official business. But on three of the 28 dual-purpose trips Murkowski took during his campaign season -- roughly from June 1 through the Aug. 22 primary election -- the governor spent more than half his time politicking. Murkowski lost his re-election bid and left office in December.

A list of the trips compiled by the governor's office shows that Murkowski spent five of his seven working hours during an Aug. 4 trip to Fairbanks on campaign business, or 71 percent of his time. He spent 59 percent of his time on an Aug. 9 trip from Juneau to Anchorage on political business, and 56 percent of his time on another Anchorage trip Aug. 3.

The breakdown of campaign time on the other 25 trips aboard the state jet during that period ranged from 11 percent to 45 percent.

'PRIMARY PURPOSE' COMES INTO QUESTION

An assistant state attorney general in the ethics section said in a June 12 opinion, issued about two weeks after Murkowski announced that he would seek re-election, that it was all right for the governor to use the state-owned jet for campaigning, but only if the "primary purpose" of the trip was official business. Previous governors also have flown at state expense during campaign season, then reimbursed the state for a portion of the cost. Following a directive from the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the state's campaign-finance watchdog, Murkowski also reimbursed the state, but at a rate far less than the cost of flying the state's Westwind II jet.

"If performance of official duties is truly the primary purpose of a trip, a public officer will not violate the Ethics Act by using state aircraft for the trip," the opinion by senior assistant attorney general David Jones says.

"However, it is important to apply careful judgment in determining the primary purpose of a trip. ... Accordingly, individuals traveling for the primary purpose of participating in partisan political activities should not use state aircraft for that travel."

In an e-mailed response to a question last week, Jones said the amount of time spent on official business is one factor to consider in determining the "primary purpose" of a trip, but not the only one.

"If we were analyzing a complaint or request for advice, we would consider all of the relevant circumstances, including percentage of time spent, but that factor would not necessarily be determinative," Jones wrote in the e-mail.

In an interview, APOC Executive Director Brooke Miles said she thinks the amount of time spent on state business is important.

"I would say if more than 50 percent of the trip was on campaigning, then the principal purpose of the trip wasn't for state work," Miles said. "That would be my recommendation to the commission if I were making one."

Jim Clark, Murkowski's former chief of staff, said he wasn't familiar with the particulars of those trips. But it's possible that the main reason for a trip could be "something that was critically important for the state but didn't take a lot of time," he said.

NANCY MURKOWSKI'S ROLE

Murkowski also deviated from the policy of previous governors in failing to reimburse the state for his wife's travel on state aircraft during his four years in office.

Frank and Nancy Murkowski are on a round-the-world cruise and couldn't be reached for comment.

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