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State fined for legislator's undeclared air shipment of ammo, spray can

Richard Mauer

An attempt by Rep. Wes Keller, a Wasilla Republican, to send bullets for his handgun, an aerosol spray can and a cigarette lighter to Juneau by air will cost the state at least a $7,000 fine, the chairman of the Legislature’s housekeeping committee said Wednesday.

In an interview later, Keller said the mistake was all his. He said his plan is to reimburse the state for the penalty.

“It’s embarrassing, very embarrassing,” Keller said. “I should’ve known.”

The matter came up during a meeting Wednesday in Anchorage of the House-Senate Legislative Council, the committee that conducts the Legislature’s business and meets throughout the year. The committee adopted a new policy on shipping household goods for legislators between their home districts and Juneau, meeting one of the conditions set by federal authorities to reduce the initial penalty, which was $19,400, said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, chair of the committee.

The maximum fine is $75,000, the Legislature’s lawyer, Doug Gardner, told the panel. If there’s another violation, the Legislature could be assessed the maximum and face suspension of its "known shipper" number, the permit issued by the Transportation Security Administration to vouch for the integrity of a shipper. Alaska Airlines won’t accept a package without a known shipper number.

“It’s a big deal,” said Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, a member of the committee. Before he was in the Legislature, Pruitt said, his job was in transportation and logistics. “I was surprised that we allowed the shipper number (to be used) without some controls here,” Pruitt said.

Not anymore.

Gardner said the Legislature would be getting a new number and canceling the old one. Only staff trained in identifying hazardous materials will use the new number and ship packages by air.

Because the Legislative Affairs Agency routinely sends documents and other material throughout the state, it would be “catastrophic” to have its known shipper number suspended, Gardner said.

Hawker said Keller has been “stand-up” from the moment his package to Juneau was intercepted at the Anchorage airport in January 2013.

Keller, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and one of the Legislature’s top gun-rights advocates, said he was wrong.

The case has been kept secret as an unresolved legal matter until now. Even during the meeting, no one named the legislator and no one mentioned that ammunition was involved — only a spray can for reducing static electricity in clothing, and a lighter.

Later, during an interview his office, Hawker said the unnamed legislator was Keller and added that bullets were on the list of “hazardous materials” that Keller had tried to ship.

Keller said he packed for Juneau that year as he had done before — as chief of staff to to Sen. Fred Dyson starting in 1999 and as a legislator himself since his appointment in 2007 to take the place of Vic Kohring, who was charged in the federal corruption scandal. Keller put a new trash container in his living room and as he and his wife saw something to bring, they tossed it into the container, he said.

In the past, he took the container in his pickup through Canada. In 2013, he brought it to the Alaska Airlines freight desk in Anchorage, he said.

“I wasn’t focused at all,” he said. He remembers declaring his unloaded pistol in a locked case but not the other things: live ammo in a magazine, an aerosol can of Static Guard, and a Bic lighter he uses for his tobacco pipe.

“I separated them from the gun,” he said, speaking of the cartridges. “Typically that’s OK, but it has to be a new box.”

He left the freight and went home.

“I was not there when they found the stuff,” Keller said. “They called me back and let me know that it was there. They asked me to come get it.”

Keller hadn’t yet left for Juneau, so he drove back to the airport.

“They gave it back to me. They saw right away it was a dumb oversight,” he said.

Under the new policy, legislators will have to ship their goods to Juneau under their own names or with an independent company holding its own known shipper number, said Juli Lucky, Hawker’s aide. The Legislature will still pay for shipping, she said.

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