JUNEAU -- State Sen. Albert Kookesh faces ethics allegations after suggesting he could make it difficult for his constituents in Craig to get state money if the City Council there opposed a bill to give land to a Native corporation that Kookesh works for.
Kookesh's remarks to the Craig City Council earlier this month are causing controversy in the Southeast community. Members of the council say the Angoon Democrat threatened the city and acted unethically.
Kookesh was part of a delegation of officials from Sealaska Corp. who attended the City Council meeting on Jan. 7, a little more than a week before the opening of this year's legislative session. Kookesh is on the board of Sealaska, the Juneau-based regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, and was there trying to convince the council to drop its move toward opposing the Sealaska lands bill in Congress.
The council that night was considering both the Sealaska issue and its requests for money from the Legislature.
"I am the state senator that represents Craig. I'm not a vindictive person," Kookesh told the council. "I see you're going to have your 2010 capital projects on the table here tonight. And who's it going to go to? It's going to go to me. And to (Rep.) Bill Thomas, who is also a Sealaska board member. We have to be good neighbors."
"There are times you are going to need my help and Bill Thomas' help," Kookesh said next, according to an audio recording of the council meeting. "And this is a time we need yours."
Thomas, a Republican state representative from Haines who sits on the budget-writing House Finance Committee, wasn't at the Craig meeting. Kookesh represents a gigantic state Senate district that covers much of rural Alaska, from Southeast nearly to Bethel. Craig, population about 1,100, is on a small island off larger Prince of Wales Island, about 50 miles from Ketchikan.
Kookesh declined to comment on the matter when approached by a reporter at the state Capitol on Friday. He indicated he believed an ethics complaint against him might be in the works. The legislative ethics complaint process is confidential unless probable cause for a violation is found. Ethics staff advises lawmakers not to speak publicly about the issue until it's done.
Kookesh was paid $75,000 as Sealaska board chairman in 2008, according to his most recent financial disclosure statement. Sealaska's Web site describes him as the company's current board chairman as well as a director for a subsidiary, Sealaska Timber Corp.
Mike Douville, a Craig City Council member who is also a Sealaska shareholder, said he was appalled at what Kookesh told the council. "I thought that was unethical," Douville said. "I looked up the state ethics code and he violated that code, in my opinion."
'I DON'T TAKE IT AS A THREAT'
Alaska ethics law says state legislators may not "threaten to, or state or imply" that they will take official action based on a person's decision not to provide something that is a "thing of value" to the legislator.
Craig council member Jim See, the city's former police chief, said he almost jumped out of his chair when Kookesh made his remarks.
"I have real problems with it. I think there are some really serious ethics problems with it," See said in an interview.
See, who like council member Douville opposes the Sealaska bill, said he thought it was wrong for Kookesh to even be at the meeting promoting the bill on behalf of the corporation when he also represents the city as its state senator.
Craig Mayor Millie Schoonover said Friday she was going to go back and listen to the tape of the meeting but at the time didn't have the same reaction to Kookesh's remarks as those council members.
"I didn't take it as a threat," she said.
Kookesh's comments came more than two hours into a City Council meeting dominated by discussion of the Sealaska lands bill that he was urging the council to support. The measure, sponsored in Congress by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would give Sealaska tens of thousands of acres of federally owned land in Southeast, including prime timberlands. Sealaska says it was shorted the amount of land given to other regional Native corporations under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
'IF YOU CAN'T SUPPORT US, REMAIN NEUTRAL'
The bill has proven contentious, including in Craig. Council members who oppose it said they're worried, among other things, that Sealaska logging practices would decimate remaining forestland on Prince of Wales Island. The Craig council has been debating sending a letter to Congress opposing the bill. But the council has not had a consensus and the mayor, a Sealaska shareholder, said she believes the corporation will work with the city to try to resolve the issues and that the bill would help the local economy.
Environmental groups also are opposing the bill.
Sealaska made a serious push to convince the council not to "join the opposition" to the measure. Kookesh was the final Sealaska speaker at the Jan. 7 City Council meeting. He told the council members to tell Sealaska what problems they have with the bill and that the corporation would work on them. He said the Native corporation has been a good neighbor with a big economic impact on Prince of Wales Island.
After Kookesh made his comments about how Craig's projects will have to go through him, he went on to say that Sealaska would appreciate support.
"And if you can't support us, remain neutral, and let us go forward with what we think we have to do to make sure that we continue to be a force in the Prince of Wales Island area," he said.
Kookesh is also co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest statewide Native organization. Its members include the regional Native corporations and villages around the state.
He was a major figure at the fall AFN convention for the highly publicized fight against his ticket for illegal subsistence fishing, and for demanding federal changes to how hunting and fishing are regulated.
Was it ethical?
At least two City Council members from the Southeast community of Craig say state Sen. Albert Kookesh acted unethically by suggesting the community would have difficulty with its funding requests to the Legislature if the council opposed a bill being pushed in Congress by Sealaska Corp. Kookesh is a Sealaska board member.
What Kookesh said:
“… We’ve never come to you and asked you for your help; we’ve never done that. We’re a self-sufficient corporation. We’re here now asking you for your help. We’re saying help us get this legislation through. Let’s talk about the problems that you have with our legislation and let’s try to fix it. There are people in this room with really strong ideals, with really strong ideas which way you want to go, including me. And I’m just as easy to get offended as anybody else in this room.
“I’m the state senator that represents Craig. I’m not a vindictive person. I see you’re going to have your 2010 capital projects on the table here tonight. And who’s it going to go to? It’s going to go to me. And to (Rep.) Bill Thomas, who is also a Sealaska board member. We have to be good neighbors. There are times you are going to need my help and Bill Thomas’ help. And this is a time we need yours.
“We’re not here begging; we’re here asking. We don’t have a hand out because we want you to give us something. We have a hand out because we want you to grab it so we can all work together. You have a tough decision to make. We would appreciate your support; we’re asking you for your support. And if you can’t support us, remain neutral and let us go forward with what we think we have to do to make sure that we continue to be a force in the Prince of Wales Island area.”
From the Legislative Ethics Act
(e) A legislator may not directly, or by authorizing another to act on the legislator’s behalf,
(1) agree to, threaten to, or state or imply that the legislator will take or withhold a legislative, administrative, or political action, including support or opposition to a bill, employment, nominations, and appointments, as a result of a person’s decision to provide or not provide a political contribution, donate or not donate to a cause favored by the legislator, or provide or not provide a thing of value;
(2) state or imply that the legislator will perform or refrain from performing a lawful constituent service as a result of a person’s decision to provide or not provide a political contribution, donate or not donate to a cause favored by the legislator, or provide or not provide a thing of value; or
(3) unless required by the Uniform Rules of the Alaska State Legislature, take or withhold official action or exert official influence that could substantially benefit or harm the financial interest of another person with whom the legislator is negotiating for employment.
By SEAN COCKERHAM