Is Alaska Corruption Investigation Still Alive?

Don Young photoThat’s the question asked today by Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision last month to drop the prosecution of former Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK). The newspaper asked NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm and other experts whether the prosecutorial misconduct in the Stevens case should taint the related investigations of Rep. Don Young (R-AK), whose photo is at right, and Steven’s son Ben, former president of the Alaska state Senate.

From the Anchorage Daily News:

“I can see they’re a little singed around the edges, but at the same time, they all take the oath to pursue the evidence of crime wherever it leads, and they do have a duty to the public to the degree that there’s people out there that are selling their office in one way or another — they owe it to the public to follow up,” Boehm said.

Even if a related case touched Stevens himself, such as one that might result from the investigation of Stevens’ son Ben, a former state Senate president, it should be pursued, said Boehm, a former local prosecutor.

“The question to me is, how do they go forward on some of these other issues and things that involve other people if there’s a tie-in to Sen. Stevens?” said Boehm.

Should a connection to Stevens amount to a “get-out-of-jail-free card as a result of this bungled thing?” Boehm asked. “By any yardstick of justice, the answer should be no. Nobody should be above the law.”

NLPC is a critic of Holder’s decision to not re-indict Stevens, and of the interconnected corruption of Alaska’s Congressional delegation.

Alaska’s other Senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, announced on July 26, 2007 that she would sell back an undeveloped piece of land that she purchased in 2006, a day after NLPC filed a Complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee alleging she bought the land at an unusually low price.

The land is located on the scenic Kenai River, Alaska’s most popular waterway, where property values are rapidly escalating. The seller was real estate developer Bob Penney, a close friend of Ted Stevens. The purchase price was $179,600, while similar lots were selling for between $250,000 and $350,000. In its Complaint, NLPC alleged that the sale was a “sweetheart deal.”

The parcel, next to Penney’s own home, was assessed at $214,900 in 2007, just weeks after the transaction. Murkowski claimed the sale price was based on the 2006 assessed price of $179,400. Penney told the media, “Word of honor: I did not know what the assessed value was…I thought it was still $120,000.”

Boehm ridiculed the assertion that Penney did not know the value of the land. Quoted in the Anchorage Daily News, he said:

The denial of knowledge of the value of a prime piece of real estate by a multimillionaire real estate developer who lived next door…doesn’t pass the straight–face test or the laugh test.

As noted in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the land sale “sparked an avalanche of criticism on conservative talk radio and political web logs.” Boehm was interviewed on several Alaska radio and television stations. Alaska newspapers covered NLPC’s Complaint extensively, and the New York Times ran an August 1, 2007 article titled, “Ethics Questions Plague Other Alaska Senator.”

Penney is not just any real estate developer. He testified before a grand jury investigating Stevens’ relationship with Veco Corporation, an oil service company whose CEO has pled guilty to bribing Alaskan legislators, including Stevens’ son, former State Senator Ben Stevens. Veco was alleged to have helped remodel Ted Stevens’ Alaska home, which was raided by the FBI on July 30, 2007. It was the same Veco probe that has made Young, another Republican, the subject of a criminal investigation.

In 1998, Penney cut Stevens in on a Utah land deal for $15,000. In 2004, Stevens sold his share of the property for $150,000. Penney told the Anchorage Daily News in 2004 that he invited Stevens in on the Utah land deal in “appreciation for all he’s done for Alaska and the country.”

Stevens steered millions of federal dollars to a sportfishing industry group founded by Penney. As a senior member on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Stevens helped the Kenai River Sportfishing Association secure more than $4.5 million between fiscal 2004 and 2006.

The tax money was not specifically earmarked for the group, but was given to it after Stevens’s office instructed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to do so, according to officials there. Penney’s group works to promote tour-guided salmon fishing for sport, an economic engine that drives up tourism and property values along the Kenai River.

Murkowski apparently had concerns about appearances of the land purchase when she closed on it. Murkowski’s husband, Verne Martell, told KENI radio in Anchorage, “When we signed the loan, Lisa signed on it and said, ‘This might come back to bite us. We’ll deal with that when it comes.’”

Lisa Murkowski was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2002 by her father Frank Murkowski to fill the vacancy caused by his election as Alaska Governor. She was narrowly elected in 2004. Her campaign featured television commercials by Stevens saying her election would help ensure the flow of federal dollars to Alaska.

In 2004, voters also approved a ballot measure stripping the governor of the power to appoint U.S. Senators, making Alaska one of only three states to do so. Governor Frank Murkowski ran for re-election in 2006, but lost in the Republican primary to Sarah Palin.

photo: AP/Wide World