Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday continued to refuse to answer questions about her top fisheries adviser, who faces nearly a year in prison after he admitted lying about illegally catching at least $100,000 worth of sablefish.
Murkowski staff member Arne Fuglvog signed a plea agreement on April 8 in which he admitted to a misdemeanor charge of breaking federal commercial fisheries law by falsifying catch records. He agreed to accept a sentence of 10 months and pay $150,000 in fines and penalties.
Fuglvog remained on Murkowski's staff until Sunday, when she accepted his resignation. On Monday, he was formally charged and his plea agreement became public. A judge has not yet accepted his guilty plea.
Through her spokesman, Murkowski repeatedly declined to answer any questions about Fuglvog by telephone and email on Tuesday and again Wednesday, including when she learned Fuglvog was under criminal investigation and whether she knew he admitted his crime to federal prosecutors four months ago.
She issued a written statement Tuesday thanking Fuglvog for his service and emphasizing that his crime occurred before joining her staff. The charge of violating the federal Lacey Act involved his ownership and operation of the fishing vessel Kamilar.
"Prior to joining my staff, Arne Fuglvog violated a fishing regulation by misstating the location where he caught sablefish," Murkowski's statement said. "I accepted his resignation Sunday, and he will plead guilty to this charge as part of a plea agreement.
"Arne served Alaskans for the past 5 years on my staff and for over a decade before that in his public service work in fisheries. I thank him for his years of service, but he knows the importance and value of our fisheries, and he also knows what all fishermen understand: fishing laws and regulations must be followed.
"Arne has cooperated fully with the authorities, taken responsibility for his actions, and accepted the consequences."
Her spokesman, Matthew Felling, said the senator couldn't comment further because "this is an ongoing legal issue."
A former member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council who was considered for the job of heading the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Obama administration, he continued representing Murkowski on fisheries issues since agreeing to plead guilty.
Some people in the industry questioned the severity of the charge, saying that commercial fishing violations are sometimes handled as civil complaints. But others said they were shocked to hear Fuglvog, well-known and respected in the industry, admitted engaging in such practices.
Fuglvog's crime was as much a betrayal of trust as a violation of the law, said John Sackton, president of an industry information service, Seafood.com. Alaska's system of fishing quotas, which Fuglvog had promoted for years, has made it a world leader in fostering conservation through economic incentives. But the system only works when fishermen obey their catch limits, Sackton said in an interview.
"It's not a paperwork mistake," said Sackton from his home in Lexington, Mass. "He was in such a position of trust, first as a council member, and he was the most important fisheries staffer in Washington. He had direct experience, he knew the management system intimately. He was an icon."
Fuglvog's plea deal says he falsified records of his commercial catches several times between 2001 and 2006, a period during which he helped regulate fishing off Alaska as a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He admitted he "covered up his illegal fishing" by claiming over 30,000 pounds of sablefish, also known as black cod, were caught in the Central Gulf of Alaska region, rather than an area known as Western Yakutat.
Sackton, a consultant who travels to Alaska several times a year, said that's a significant conservation issue for sablefish because they're often found bunched together in hot spots. Permits are written to prevent overfishing a specific group of fish, he said.
"When he reached his limit in one area, instead of stopping, he kept catching more fish in the same area and then when he landed it, he reported it as being in a different area," Sackton said.
Fuglevog joined Murkowski's office as her fisheries adviser in September 2006.
Just a week after signing the plea deal in April, Fuglvog represented Murkowski at the big ComFish trade show in Kodiak, said Kodiak-based fisheries journalist Laine Welch.
Welch said Fuglvog was "addressing every question that came up" and gave no hint that he had just signed an agreement that was going to send him to federal prison. There has been no sign that Murkowski ever pulled Fuglvog back from the key policy role that he played in her office.
Vidar Wespested, a consultant with the Aleutians East Borough, said he met with Fuglvog on July 10.
"The guy was all gung-ho, was going to give us money for projects. He was really excited. He was going to personally work to get us money for the schools out in King Cove and Sand Point, getting scientific equipment for the kids on a cooperative project with NMFS, he was personally going to go to the Fish and Wildlife Service Foundation to get money for us," he said.
Fuglvog came close two years ago to taking over as head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the highest government position in the country that is focused solely on fishing.
Fuglvog was widely reported in fishing industry journals as one of two finalists for the position and had letters of support from both Murkowski and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. But Fuglvog pulled his name from consideration in July 2009, saying that the selection process was going on for too long.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Steward said Wednesday that Fuglvog has been under investigation for "some time," but wouldn't be more specific about just when the investigation started.
Shannyn Moore, an Anchorage talk show host and political activist, said Wednesday that people who had been crew on Fuglvog's fishing vessel contacted her around December 2008.
Moore said the people, who she declined to name, told her they had already been called in to testify as part of an investigation of Fuglvog. They were upset to see Fuglvog was under consideration to head the fisheries service, Moore said.
Moore said she was given a copy of a partial "fish log book" detailing Fuglvog's actual catches, as opposed to what he reported catching. She said she contacted the office of Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, because Frank was supporting the other finalist to lead the national fisheries service. Frank's pick didn't get the job either.
Frank spokesman Harry Gural confirmed Wednesday that Moore had contacted a staffer in his office. Gural said Frank's office had already been aware of things Moore was talking about and did not have any evidence of wrongdoing.
"Based upon someone calling us and saying there is something someone did that might have been inappropriate or whatever we're not going to go with that information and do something because we don't have any further backup," he said.
Fuglvog's attorney, Jeff Feldman, has asked the U.S. District Court in Anchorage to set an initial hearing before Aug. 12 for Fuglvog to formally enter his guilty plea.