TO THOSE of us this far away in the Lower 48, it sounds a lot like Watergate -- a grand jury report, talk of prosecuting a major public official, legislators meeting to consider impeachment. Even the cast of characters is familiar: Sam Dash, once the Senate Watergate committee's counsel, is in Juneau advising members of the state senate; Philip Lacovara, once part of the special prosecutor's staff, is a lawyer for Alaska's Gov. William Sheffield, the first American governor in 60-odd years to be threatened with impeachment.
Yet a closer look suggests that this episode is not anything like Watergate, but is similar to the kinds of charges and countercharges that are staples of American politics from Boston's Statehouse to the capitol Huey Long built in Baton Rouge. Mr. Sheffield is charged with no offense that threatens to undermine the liberties of his constituents or the free operation of politics or government; in fact, the grand jury declined to indict him at all. Instead, it issued a report calling him "unfit to fulfill the inherent duties of public office" and urging that he be impeached. The report said that he had rigged specifications so that a state lease was awarded to a building in which one of his major fund owned a 3 percent interest, and that he was not candid in claiming not to recall conversations with him. The state senate is currently mulling these charges; it takes a two-thirds vote to send the case to the house for trial.
From this distance it's difficult to judge these matters, and we claim no great familiarity with Alaskan law. But we do know that, as a general principle, grand juries are supposed either to indict someone or to hold their peace. The Alaska grand jury, clothed in the authority of the law, insulated from scrutiny by secrecy, presumed to have access to secret materials, admitted it lacked evidence to prove Mr. Sheffield a crook but came close to calling him one anyway.
The legislature now is considering the gravest of penalties, in a quasi-judicial atmosphere. But those who consider Mr. Sheffield's conduct reprehensible have political remedies. They can seek an election to recall him from office. Or they can argue that he should be defeated in next year's election, in which he already has prominent opposition. Alaska is a state with a small population, in which many voters know major politicians personally and in which all politicians operate under close and constant scrutiny. Those who believe that Mr. Sheffield is guilty of misconduct short of a crime have every opportunity to appeal to the voters. Is this impeachment really necessary?