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Sitka guide embroiled in residency battle never hid where he lived

Craig Medred
Courtesy Tom Ohaus

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series examining how fishing guide Tom Ohaus of Sitka was charged with illegally obtaining Alaska fishing licenses. Ohaus was considered a strong candidate to become the only sport fisherman on the International Pacific Halibut Commission before being charged. Read part one here

Sitka fishing guide Tom Ohaus, now in trouble with the Alaska law for illegally posing as an Alaska resident, never made any effort to hide where he worked and where he lived. When he helped form an organization of Southeast Alaska guides to fight for sport-fishing opportunities in 2008, the Juneau-based "Capital City Weekly" described him as "a former Sitka resident who now lives in Dartmouth, Mass." 

The state is not arguing that Ohaus failed to meet state residency standards -- something Alaskans take very seriously -- prior to 2004. Alaska State Trooper Tim Hall, in a three page affidavit filed with the Sitka court, concedes that "Ohaus may have established Alaska residency by remaining in state 12 consecutive months in 1998," but he argues Ohaus forfeited his residency when he signed a Massachusetts mortgage that contained protections from credits available only to Massachusetts residents.

From Sitka to Dartmouth

Ohaus said he is not talking to the media on the advice of his attorney, Brent Cole of Anchorage. But he did insist he spent several full years in Alaska in the 1990s in order to become a resident. He has been bi-coastal ever since, with a home in Sitka, on the West Coast, and another in Dartmouth, on the East Coast. A clearly successful businessman, he also recently bought a home in Washington state to ease all the travel between East and West.

How Ohaus -- who has told friends he is, if anything, an innocent victim of the state's complicated resident requirements for hunting and fishing -- ended up with Cole as his attorney is unclear. Cole is a politically-connected former prosecutor -- he served on Gov. Sean Parnell's transition team --  and a well-known fixer. Cole specializes in fish and wildlife cases and almost always plea bargains them out. He has been in a huge battle for years now with former client Dave Haeg, a hunting guide, who contends that in those plea bargains Cole sometimes seems to be bargaining as much for the state as for his client.

Someone familiar with the Ohaus case says Cole advised Ohaus to earlier this year buy a second fishing license -- this one for a non-resident -- to satisfy the concerns of troopers that the Alaska-Massachusetts resident might be trying to take advantage of the lower cost license for residents while technically a non-resident. Hall's affidavit cites the purchase of a non-resident license as evidence that earlier licenses were obtained under false pretenses.

"On 4/30/12," the affidavit says, "I contacted Tom Ohaus on his cell phone. He stated he was visiting in Washington currently. Ohaus indicated that he had retained a lawyer after hearing about investigations into Chuck (McNamee) and Dave (Gross) at his company. Ohaus provided the number for Brent Cole in Anchorage. Ohaus said he checked the residency statutes, and he had not gotten any benefits out of state and thought he was okay.

"On 5/11/12, I checked online licenses and found he had purchased second a (sic) non-resident fishing license through the Internet. He subsequently provided a copy of the non-resident fishing license to me via email.''

Absentee voter

If that purchase was meant to portray Ohaus as a responsible citizen trying to comply with a somewhat confusing state law, it didn't work. It only seems to have encouraged Hall's investigation, which revealed that Ohaus owns a home in Sitka and an interest in the Angling Unlimited Lodge he runs with McNamee. Ohaus pays property taxes in Sitka. He has an Alaska driver's license, and he is registered to vote in Alaska. But his voting record apparently raised more concerns for authorities.

"Alaska Voter Registration records show Ohaus voted absentee in local and general elections from 2004-2010 with the exception of the 2008 primary when he apparently voted in person," Hall wrote.

"In a posting on the Angling Unlimited website from the 'Captain's Blog on 1/17/12," the affidavit adds, "Ohaus states in the post that he fishing in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, from late April-mid May (sic) each year, relocates to Sitka for the summer to guide, and goes back to Massachusetts for two months starting in September. Other postings indicate trips were made to Sitka in January and February 2010 for Board of Fishing Meetings in Sitka. The travel is phrased as a 'trip to Sitka' not as a return home."

Hilyard noted that if being gone from Alaska for approximately three months every year -- as the above claim indicates -- voids one's residency, the Alaska Legislature might have a number of members who fail to qualify as Alaska residents, and other Alaska residents could be in trouble, too. State Board of Fisheries chairman Karl Johnstone, a former Superior Court judge in Anchorage, in March came under fire for spending considerable parts of the long Alaska winter at a second home in Arizona.

Ohaus, as far as can be independently determined, spends some of his winter in Massachusetts and some of his winter on the road at various outdoor shows around the country promoting his business and Alaska. Hall's affidavit would indicate Ohaus at least believed himself an Alaska resident. The trooper reported a call to the Massachusetts "Division of Fisheries and Wildlife indicated Tom Ohaus had obtained a Massachusetts Non-Resident Saltwater Fishing License in May 2011. The address listed on the license was 4256 Halibut Point Road, Sitka, AK,'' which is the Angling Unlimited Lodge.

But, Hall added, "a Massachuetts saltwater sportfishing license is $10 for both resident and non-residents."

Such is not the case in Alaska. Non-residents here pay $145 for an annual sport fishing license; residents pay $24. Hall's affidavit indicates he began an investigation into Ohaus and other employees of Angling Unlimited -- a business co-owned by Ohaus and Chuck McNamee -- in the belief employees there could be ripping the state off for hundreds of dollars in license fees every year.

"...My knowledge of the company indicated many of the employees are from Minnesota," the trooper wrote in his affidavit. "Over the past three winters, I observed the lodge to be largely unoccupied throughout the winter months from mid-late September through April. ... (A neighbor) said Ohaus typically comes up a couple of times per year to check on the property. She stated there were broken pipes this winter which caused him to come up in February. She thought the family lived together throughout the year except when Tom was up before school let out in the spring. (Liz) Ellingsen said she considers Ohaus' family her 'summer neighbors', but would not think they qualify as Alaska residents."

The affidavit does not mention that Ellingsen's husband, Dan, is a commercial fishermen. Nor that there is no love lost between commercial and sport fishermen in Alaska, particularly these days in Sitka. The lodges bring tourists to Sitka to catch halibut  and salmon. Sitka fishermen -- commercial and sport -- are locked in a bitter battle over who catches those fish. Angling Unlimited, Ohaus especially, has played a high-profile roll in trying to maintain the halibut sport fishery in the face of quota cutbacks demanded by the larger and politically more powerful commercial fishery.

Anthony Bartell: similar case

Ohaus was one of the founders of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization (SEAGO), which was established, according to its website, to preserve Panhandle sport-fishing businesses that generate "about 3,000 jobs, $100 million in personal income, and $20 million in tax revenues. It is important to all Alaskans that sportfishing be a steady, sustainable, and integral part of our economy."

Which participants in which Alaska fisheries are truly "Alaskans," versus what Alaskans call "Outsiders," is a hot political issue in a state that can be almost insanely provincial on the issue of residency. And it only seems to get worse when successful people are involved. Colorado real-estate agent Anthony Bartell, who developed an enviable business that allows him time to fish for most of the summer, last fall got in a legal battle with the state over losing his residency in a manner similar to the way Ohaus allegedly lost his.

Bartell splits his time between homes in Colorado, Michigan, North Dakota and Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. He established legally residency in Alaska in the late 1990s, and said he has considered the 49th state home ever since. But troopers contend he gave up his residency in 2008 when he obtained a Colorado driver's license. Bartell said he only did that because new restrictions on international travel were requiring Americans to obtain passports to travel through Canada. Bartell said the passport office in Colorado wouldn't issue him a passport without a Colorado driver's license. So he got the license to get the passport to be able to tow his boat to Alaska. And when he arrived in Alaska, he said, he almost immediately went and got a new Alaska driver's license.

No matter, the state charged, he'd broken the residency connection and needed to do another full 12-months in Alaska to requalify as a resident. Ohaus's situation is similar.  Both cases involve a section of state law that says that to qualify for a hunting, fishing or trapping license someone must have "maintained the person's domicile in the state for 12 consecutive months immediately preceding the application for the license," and must not be "claiming residency in any other state, territory, or country; and is not obtaining benefits under a claim of residency in another state, territory or country."

It is the latter, according to Hall's affidavit, which presents a problem for Ohaus. 

"A check online through the Town of Dartmouth MA shows that Thomas C. Ohaus and Linda M. Kristofik (Ohaus's wife) own the residence at 39 East Avenue and an adjacent lot which is ocean front to Buzzard's Bay MA. The two properties are currently assessed at approximately $1.8 million dollars. ... Further checks through the Bristol Country Registry of Deeds on 4/6/12 showed a Homestead Exemption signed by Thomas Ohaus on 11/23/2004 stating the 39 East Avenue home is occupied as a residence (sic) and a homestead. In Massachusetts a Homestead exemption is defined as limited to a primary property. A copy of the Declaration of Homestead was obtained online and shows Ohaus' notarized signature. A homestead exemption can provide property tax exemptions and can be used to protect the home from civil actions. A homestead exemption in Massachusetts is limited to the person's primary residency (the home they want to protect from civil actions)." 

That makes Ohaus someone "obtaining benefits under a claim of residency in another state" even if he isn't claiming residency in any other state. Unless, of course, you're a big believer in the lamestream media, which says Ohaus is the resident of another state.

"A Google search of Ohaus' name revealed an interview with the Everett Potter, a travel journalist," Hall's affidavit says. "He states ... in the last paragraph of the introduction to the interview: 'When Tom is not running the show in Alaska during the May to September season, he can be found at his home on the southern coast of Massachusetts, eagerly scanning the fishing grounds between his coastal home and the Elizabeth Islands and Martha's Vinyard."

Ah yes, home, as they say, is where a travel writer says it is. Case closed.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com