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Senate candidate Miller's mysterious Mat-Su hideaway

Craig Medred

miller-caswell-lakes-cabin
Joe Miller's Caswell Lake-area cabin.
For the past 14 years, U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miler has owned or controlled 40 acres with a two-story house near Willow, but he does not report it in his Senate financial disclosure statements.

The deed for the property is recorded in the name of something called "The Wilmington Trust," but the woman named as the trustee says she had no idea of the exact nature of her legal connections and obligations to the property. Whether a trust actually exists is unclear.

The land and cabin are currently valued by the Matanuska Susitna Borough at $57,500, though Miller once tried to sell the property for significantly more. And though not reported on his Senate disclosure forms, the property has in the past been reported by Miller in state financial disclosure records.

When he took a job as a state magistrate in the late 1990s, he filed an Alaska Public Offices Commission report that listed the owners of the property as three of his children and their interest in the property as a "trust.'' The property was at that time reported to be vacant. In the years that followed, Miller added additional children to the list of named owners, and changed the state of the property from a trust to an "ownership-trust,'' or an "ownership, trust.'' The property was reported to be a "rental'' in a 1999 report and a "rental-farm" in a 2000 report.

The land was purchased in 1996. Former owner Arnie Hrncir said he gave in to a low-ball offer from Miller because he really needed to sell. Hrncir didn't say how much Miller paid, but land in the Willow area was going cheap at the time.

Miller had been working for a year or so as an attorney at an Anchorage law firm, although in 1995 he'd signed a sworn statement that he was indigent. That claim allowed him to save $50 on a state hunting and fishing license; he got a license reserved for the poor for only $5.

Before purchasing the cabin, he and his wife, Kathleen, began work on a costly addition to their Anchorage home that more than doubled the assessed value of what had been a $93,100 house. And shortly after that, the Millers went shopping for their out-of-town hideaway.

In the summer of 1996, Miller found Hrncir, who'd built a solid cabin back in the woods a couple miles off the George Parks Highway in the area of Caswell Lakes. Hrncir did not remember Miller by name when contacted by the Alaska Dispatch earlier this month, but he did well recall selling the property to a "young Anchorage lawyer." Hrncir said he met the attorney in an Anchorage Denny's Restaurant -- Miller was working as a lawyer in the city at the time -- to sign the papers closing the deal.

But Miller's name does not appear on the deed registered with the state.

On paper, the land Hrncir sold to Miller is in the name of "Bobbi Reed,'' trustee for The Wilmington Trust. Reed is an old friend of Miller's wife, Kathleen.

Reed lives in Anchorage, but tax statements are sent to her at an address in Fairbanks. The address is the post office box for the Law Offices of Joseph W. Miller.

In an Oct. 19 interview, Reed said the property is Miller's. Attorneys familiar with federal campaign disclosure laws say that if that is the case, Miller should have reported it on his Senate filings.

The Senate disclosure forms do list the 1,000 acres of Delta farmland Miller bought with a state loan in 1999 as well as his home and law office in Fairbanks. But there is no mention of the Willow land or any trusts Miller might control for his children if, in fact, a trust exists. Reed said she knows nothing about a trust even though she is named as trustee. She knows only that after the Millers bought the property, they asked her to do them a favor as a friend.

"It was my understanding that if something happened to them, I was supposed to take care of it for the children,'' she said, "like under a will circumstance.''

Asked where The Wilmington Trust was registered, Reed said, "I don't have a clue.''

She also said she didn't know where any rent payments might have been sent.

Residents who live near Miller's Willow hideaway say the house used to be occupied by a couple named Wise, who some years ago moved to Texas. One area resident remembered the man's first name as Phil.

On APOC forms filed in 1999 through 2001, Miller reported "rental income" from one "Phil Wise.'' The report does not say what Wise was renting from Miller, or how much he paid in rent. It simply records a payment of $1,000 or more per year. But Miller does report the Willow property as rented for two of those years.

If The Wilmington Trust and trustee Reed were managing the property and Phil Wise was indeed a tenant paying rent, it is unclear why he would be paying it to Miller. Trusts in the state of Alaska are supposed to be registered with the probate section of the Alaska State Court System. Alaska Dispatch could find no record of The Wilmington Trust, but trust attorneys note the Alaska trust law wasn't written until 1996. They say it is possible Miller could have set up an offshore or out-of-state trust at the time.

By law in Alaska, trustees are also to maintain trust records, prepare income tax returns and otherwise manage a trust. Reed was unaware of her duties as a trustee. Joe Miller is a Yale-educated lawyer. He never explained to Reed her duties as a trustee, she said.

Reed was actually somewhat surprised to learn her name was on the deed for the Willow property, and she had to check with the Millers to see that they still owned the land. Reed thought the property had been sold years ago.

Repeated efforts on the part of Dispatch to get the Miller campaign to explain the history and status of the Willow land, along with why it wasn't disclosed on federal forms, proved futile. Campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto, whose telephone voicemail suggests that a "quick way to reach me" is e-mail, did not respond to an e-mail asking, among other questions, whether there really is a Wilmington Trust. DeSoto did, however, respond to some other emails sent about the same time.

The childrens' trust

Reed might be excused for her lack of knowledge about The Wilmington Trust because she thought she had long ago been absolved of her responsibility in that regard. She thought the Millers had sold the property. Neighbors in the Caswell Lakes area said the house and land were indeed on the market for a few years, but did not sell.

Many in the neighborhood full of dog mushers and barking dogs back behind the Sportsmen Acres subdivision along the Parks know about the now-empty house that sits in the woods at the end of a primitive, winding road off Bernadette Street, although not all know Miller is the owner.

Most of those who do know wanted their names kept out of any stories about the controversial Alaska politician. Talkeetna Real Estate confirmed the 40 acres and the house were listed for sale sometime in the early 2000s for "either $69,000 or $79,000."

The listing described the property as containing a two-story, unfinished cabin with no septic, but a working well. A lack of legal access was noted as a problem. That made a sale difficult.

"It needed a 'right of way'" from the property owner of an adjacent lot, said real estate agent Klaus Steigler, who listed the property, in an e-mail. One person who considered buying the property said the owner of the "adjacent lot'' was trying to use Miller's 40 acres and house to leverage the sale of 80 acres of "swamp."

Along with reporting the Willow land on old APOC statements, and apparently reporting rent made off it, Miller's law office has been the address getting the tax statements for years, according to the Finance Department for the Mat Su Borough. A clerk there said that the checks that come back from Fairbanks to pay the taxes are signed "Joe Miller." He has regularly paid those taxes on time, but is now delinquent for this year.

The Willow property is described in one APOC report as a "Rental-Farm" and neighbors say there were some signs of farming-related activity. The Wises, they said, once had some goats. The goat pen remains near the house which, by all indications, has now been empty for years.

"It was for sale for a long time,'' too, said Jason Halseth, a one-time musher in the area. "We went and looked at it (to buy), but that was about 10 years ago. All I ever knew was that it was on the market."


The Dispatch was unable to locate the Wises or any other former occupants of the cabin. Reed said she never even knew the house to be occupied. "As far as I know,'' she said, "the property is vacant.''

Property is vacant

The two-story, well-insulated cabin on raised footings is most decidedly vacant now. It might even be described as a little rundown.

The chimney for the wood stove appears to have been blown off in a windstorm or taken down by a roof avalanche. The un-sided plywood is aged by weather. But the structure is still sturdy.

It should be; Hrncir, the man who built it and then sold it to Miller, said he sheathed the framing with three-quarter-inch plywood when he built it 20 some years ago.

Not all that long after it was done, the young Anchorage lawyer -- Miller -- and his wife showed up shopping for land, Hrncir said. Hrncir remembered a then-young couple with mop-headed kids. He recalled the husband and wife saying they planned to move out of the city, and that Willow looked to be a good place to raise children.

The Millers did leave Anchorage for semi-rural Alaska not long thereafter, but not for Willow. Joe left an Anchorage law firm for a part-time job in the Interior village of Tok, population 1,400, as a state magistrate.

The Millers never lived on the Willow property, said Judith Habla, whose home on East Nosey Avenue would have made her one of their closest neighbors. She told a reporter she knew who Joe Miller was -- most of Alaska does at this point -- but she really didn't want to talk about him.

Habla said the cabin has been empty since the Wises left, and there are those access problems.

Many in the area, including Talkeetna real estate agents, appear to be aware of this. The lack of legally platted access drives down the property value.

The Mat-Su assessor pegged the value of the place at $57,500 this year -- down a couple thousand dollars from 2008. The house made up more than half the value. The 40 acres of land covered with birch and aspen trees was valued at only $27,000.

Disclosure required?

Attorneys familiar with federal campaign disclosure laws say that if the Willow property is owned by Miller, it should have been reported as an asset on his federal campaign disclosure forms.

It also would have to be reported, they said, if it is in a legally established trust for dependent children. Some of Miller's eight children are dependents; some aren't. The kids now range in age from seven to 21.

The Alaska Division of Lands says there is no law against recording the title for the property in the name of a trust that doesn't exist -- if in fact that is what Miller did. A clerk in the recorder's office said people occasionally record a sale in the name of a trust, but then fail to follow through in creating the document because of the time and trouble. In cities and boroughs with property taxes, however, she said local officials usually sort out pretty quickly who owns what in order to collect tax revenues

‘He got me'

The story Hrncir tells about the land deal with Miller doesn't exactly paint a flattering picture of the candidate. The year was 1996, Hrncir said, and the economy in the area just north of Willow -- once the site of a proposed new state capital -- was going in the tank. Everyone was broke and getting out or already gone.

Hrncir and his family were stuck in their house hidden in 40 acres of Doctor Zhivago-like forest back off the highway near mile 93. The property was remote back then. "You had to snowmachine or four-wheeler in back there,'' Hrncir said. The family heated the cabin with a wood stove hard to keep fueled in the winter.

Hrncir finally decided to put the place up for sale in an Anchorage newspaper. Not long after, the Anchorage attorney, his wife and several of their kids came by. "He knew I wanted to sell bad,'' Hrncir said. "He made me one of those 'offer's good only until the sun goes down' deals.'"

Hrncir didn't really want to sell for the cut-rate price being offered, but he felt that he had to. And he perfectly understood the low-ball offer; business is business.

What followed wasn't, at least not by Alaska standards. The deal was made in Willow, Hrncir said, but he met Miller in Anchorage at the Denny's on Dimond Boulevard to sign the papers to close the sale. Up to that point, Hrncir said, he'd always found the Anchorage lawyer a friendly guy. That changed the second the legal documents were inked.

Hrncir told Miller he planned to go back to Caswell to get the last of the family's stuff out of the cabin, including the generator Hrncir had said all along he planned to take with him. Miller told Hrncir that he was to stay off the property.

Accustomed to an old Alaska where a man's handshake is his word, Hrncir was taken aback, but he didn't fight.

"He schemed me out of that,'' Hrncir said. "He pulled out a paper and said it said (sold) 'where is, as is.' Legally he was right, (but) he went from a friend to a legal counsel in a minute.''

Hrncir wrote it off as one of those things that just happen. He figured he was out about $1,500, but he wasn't going to break the law to try to get his stuff back. He just moved on. The family ended up at Hicks Creek along the Glenn Highway, where they worked hard to build a roadhouse and found a small measure of success in business.

Hrncir said he never had any further contact with the Anchorage attorney or the Willow property. He didn't particularly like being reminded of the Willow days when called by a reporter, either. "It brings back memories,'' he said.

The memories of the years the family spent in the cabin are generally good. The memories of what happened in the end, though, are not so good.

"I'll admit it,'' Hrncir said. "He got me."

Hrncir was surprised to learn that man is now a candidate for U.S. Senate. Hrncir has been busy for much of the fall running heavy equipment. He is trying to get a boat ramp built along the Matanuska River in order to run jet boat tours of the glacier next year. He says he hasn't paid much attention to Alaska's heated Senate race.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.