From ‘SWATTING’ to Silencing: The Struggle Against Abortion Funding in Alaska’s Capitol

Many Alaskans are blissfully unaware of how intolerant the State Capitol building has grown toward conservatives in recent years. To be known as a conservative legislator or a conservative activist in Juneau is to have a target on your back. Sooner or later, that means being subjected to a politically motivated prosecution from the misnamed Legislative Ethics Committee. 

Rep. Tammie Wilson of North Pole was targeted by the Ethics Committee when she served in the Legislature. Sen. Lora Reinbold of Eagle River was targeted. Rep. Christopher Kurka of Wasilla was targeted. And my staff and I were targeted as well. It wasn’t any better when I was a member of the Ethics Committee several years ago.

Setting aside its original purpose, the function of the Ethics Committee today is to censor what legislators can say, especially conservative legislators. In addition to policing more traditional forms of communication, the committee has lately decided that it should also be able to police what legislators say on social media as well.

Of the five permanent members of the committee, all of whom are appointed by the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, there is not a single Republican. Four are non-partisan, one is Democrat, and three of the five signed a petition to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2019.

Often, just the threat of being hauled before the committee, even on the most dubious of accusations, is enough to convince legislators to steer clear of things they would otherwise say and do. Over time, policing what legislators are permitted to say results in a huge power disparity between legislators who have the option to simply let the liberal media or unions do their talking for them, and conservative legislators who usually do not have that option. But that is a topic for another day.

It was April 14. I led the House in the Pledge of Allegiance that day, and I introduced two guests who were visiting Juneau from the Mat-Su. All told, the introductions lasted less than twenty seconds

When I was first elected, it was not uncommon for legislators to extend the courtesy of an introduction to anyone visiting the legislature from out of town, even candidates who had run against them in the last election. But that has begun to change. All guests are equal, but some conservatives are less equal than others.

I was told afterward that, during this briefest of introductions, I had crossed a line. A fellow legislator, Rep. Kevin McCabe, told me that I shouldn’t have done that. The guest I introduced was a political enemy of his. The message was clear: I should have joined others in cancelling him, not welcomed him to the Capitol.

Who was the guest? The oft reviled Pat Martin of Alaska Right to Life, who was in Juneau that day to deliver 5,000 signatures on a petition asking legislators to halt the state taxpayer funding of abortion. There are at least two things that today’s legislators are disinclined to do: Moving the capital and ending state funding of abortion both make the list.

Even so, both are popular issues that a majority of Alaskans have supported in the past and continue to support today. I suspect an activist roaming the halls of Juneau advocating to move the capitol would have been treated similarly. To be clear, I would have welcomed such a person to Juneau as well. But some legislators would prefer to make the capitol building a safe space, insulated from such dangerous ideas and those who advocate for them.

On April 14, one legislator’s office flat out refused to accept the 5,000 signatures. One responded by calling security and saying that Martin had been seen with a firearm in the capitol building.

Security responded. There was no firearm. It was a “swatting” incident, the first I am aware of in the state Capitol. All Alaskans are welcome to come to the capitol building, but some are more welcome than others.

Three weeks later, Rep. Christopher Kurka awoke to the news that an ethics complaint had been filed against him by Rep. McCabe for the political crime of welcoming Kevin’s political enemy, Pat Martin, into his office at the State Capitol Building. Seven minutes later, I received, word for word, the exact same complaint.

Until April 14, it was unheard of that someone would file an ethics complaint against you because they were offended at who you chose to meet with in your office at the capitol building. It was also unheard of that the ethics committee would ever allow themselves to be used to prosecute such a complaint. Not anymore.

Picture, for a moment, yourself as a legislator in Juneau. It’s April 14, you just spent your day debating and voting on eight different bills, ranging from bills to unionize childcare providers to bills dealing with various oil royalties. Immediately afterwards, you move to a committee hearing where you consider further bills, including a potential salary increase for state employees and a bill requiring legislative confirmation hearings for members of the Alaska Permanent Fund Board.

At 5:23 pm, the committee finally adjourns and you get to begin preparing for the next day, where you will take up a bill redefining the definition of rape in state law. As part of that bill, you will be hearing public testimony from rape victims whose assailants were never prosecuted because of the way the legislature defined rape in state law decades ago. That evening, you and your staff finally part ways to get some rest and begin the process anew the following day.

Three weeks later, you are informed by authorities that a fellow legislator has charged you with violating state ethics laws for your work that day. Instead of spending your day in committee and voting on bills, the legislator accuses you of spending most of the day in your office, with a political enemy of his no less. The kicker — and this is where the story takes a turn towards the incredible — the legislator who filed the charges wasn’t even in the capitol building that day. In fact, he missed the entire voting session that day because he was over a thousand miles away when it happened.

It seems like an open and shut case, right? Someone accuses you of spending most of the day in your office with someone they are publicly at odds with, and video from the day’s events shows that you were present for the entirety of that day’s protracted house floor session and the committee meeting that immediately followed it. Further, the written record shows that you were present for every vote taken that day, and it also shows that the person filing the charges was not.

But we don’t need to imagine this. This happened to two Mat-Su legislators. I was one of them.

These two complaints triggered an investigation and legal proceedings that lasted more than 18 months—all at state expense of course. I and the other legislator were of course obliged to hire attorneys to defend ourselves against the charges. The subsequent legal proceedings involved no less than four hearings and committee meetings, as well as numerous interviews over the 20-month period, between the legislator initiating the charges in April 2022 and the case finally being dismissed in December 2023.

Even after Rep. Kurka left office in January, rather than dismiss the complaint against him, the committee chose to continue the charade for another 11 months. 

When Rep. Kurka and I were finally told that we were free to go in December, we had been obliged to spend more than $6,000 dollars in legal fees, and had invested hundreds of hours of time over the nearly two-year episode. Even in the very moment of dismissing the cases against us, the committee insisted on  publicly criticizing both Rep. Kurka and I for the fact that we had each been unavailable during the height of our election campaigns. To add still further injury, we were told that the Ethics Committee considers legal representation a luxury. Accordingly, even after we were found innocent, we were told that the committee would not aid us in recovering any of our costs.

Alaskans are not able to recover any of their costs from these two cases either; the costs associated with the numerous committee hearings spanning nearly two years, the cost of the state hiring an investigator, the travel and per diem costs for each of the five public members of the committee, the time spent by at least six legislators who were involved in the case, and the time that our respective staff spent on these two cases instead of being able to engage with constituents. All told, it is quite the bill—and to think it was all triggered by a guest introduction lasting less than 20 seconds.

Rep. David Eastman is a Republican House member from Wasilla, House District 27.

This article was originally published on Must Read Alaska 2/14/2024.

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