Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski appears to be slightly behind Joe Miller, her primary challenger. AP reports that 16,000 absentee ballots were cast and will not be counted until August 31, so the winner may not be known for some time.
NLPC has been a critic of Murkowski and her relationship with associates of corrupt Alaska Republicans like the late Ted Stevens. On July 26, 2007 Murkowski announced that she would sell back an undeveloped piece of land that she purchased in 2006, one day after NLPC filed a Complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee alleging a “sweetheart deal.”
The land is located on the scenic Kenai River, Alaska’s most popular waterway, where property values were rapidly escalating. The seller was real estate developer Bob Penney, a close friend of 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 Murkowski bought the land at an unusually low price.
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.”
At the time, NLPC Chairman Ken 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.”
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.’”
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 pled guilty to bribing Alaskan legislators, including Stevens’ son, former State Senator Ben Stevens. Veco was also alleged to have helped remodel Ted Stevens’ Alaska home.
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’ 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.
In October 2008, Stevens’ was convicted of failing to disclose the gifts from Veco, but his conviction was overturned in April 2009 due to prosecutorial misconduct. Attorney General Eric Holder chose not retry Stevens, as part of an apparent policy to close down all investigations related to Congressional earmarks. On August 5, Alaska’s lone Congressman, Republican Don Young, said that he had been notified that the Justice Department had dropped its investigation of his role in the Veco scandal.
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.