Gift of kidney to ailing lawmaker against the rules

ETHICS LAW: Legislative aide wants to donate organ to Nome legislator Richard Foster.

January 25, 2008 

JUNEAU -- Nome Rep. Richard Foster is famous at the state Capitol for his love of machine guns and the weekly "Foster Night" musical jam parties he used to host in his Capitol office.

Now Foster is hurting, badly, and his many friends at the state Capitol want to do more than send flowers. A half-dozen offered to donate their kidneys to the ailing legislator. Sue Stancliff, an aide to Fairbanks Rep. Mike Kelly, appears to be a match.

Here's the problem: It appears to be against state ethics law for Stancliffe to give Foster a kidney.

Alaska lawmakers tightened the ethics laws last year following the FBI raids on legislative offices and the criminal charges against former legislators. The changes included stricter limits on the gifts that state legislators can receive.

The Legislature did insert a "compassionate gift" exemption into the law to cover items meant as comfort in times of tragedy or a health emergency. But even those gifts can't be worth more than $250, and donating a kidney is figured to be worth more than that.

That's why North Pole Rep. John Coghill has introduced House Bill 317, which would eliminate the dollar limit on a compassionate gift to a legislator or legislative employee. The gift recipient would still have to disclose the gift within 30 days.

Coghill said the legislative ethics committee approached him and let him know it could be a problem for Stancliff to give Foster her kidney. Coghill said he wants to make sure there are no legal questions.

There would still be the question of whether Foster, who has had heart problems as well as the kidney disease, is strong enough for the procedure.

Foster, 61, suffered a mild stroke on Friday and is undergoing treatment at a Seattle hospital. The stroke left him with some speech and mobility problems, according to his staff, but he is improving.

Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon, Foster's former staffer and longtime friend, said Foster is undergoing a two-week intensive therapy session and is responding well.

He has a two-week, excused absence from the Legislature, and other lawmakers have been assigned to take over his budget subcommittees until he is ready to return.

Even before his latest hospitalization, Foster had to go to a Juneau hospital for dialysis three times a week. The process would leave him dehydrated and drained of energy.

But friends said he was still able to crack cornball jokes.

Foster, a retired air taxi operator first elected to the House in 1988, is a colorful character in the old Alaskan style.

His official legislative Web site lists his interests as "Enjoying the country, Music by Spank The Dog."

Foster also likes guns, a lot. He faced federal charges in 1991 of illegal possession of unregistered automatic weapons. His stash included two AKs, a German MG 42 from World War II, two British World War II-style Sten guns and a Soviet 50 mm mortar.

The jury in Nome, where Foster was born, quickly found him not guilty on all counts.

Foster is also known for jokes that can crack up somber House floor sessions.

"He'll make you smile on a dark day in this building when smiles are hard to come by," said Stancliff, the legislative aide who wants to give Foster one of her kidneys.

Stancliff, who lives in Tok when the Legislature isn't in session, is the finance committee aide for Fairbanks Republican Rep. Kelly. Foster, a Democrat who aligns with the Republican-led majority, has a seat on the finance committee.

She said Foster would have a newspaper with a hole cut out of it in the finance committee. Then he'd pick up the newspaper and look at her through it, just to make her laugh.

Stancliff said the hope is to do the kidney transplant sometime this spring after the legislative session is over.

"The good Lord gave me two healthy kidneys and my faith is very, very strong," she said.

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