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Who's really an Alaskan?

Aaron Jansen Illustration

Yakutat commercial fisherman David Negus can make a claim impossible for most in the 49th state: He is an officially certified Alaska resident.

And yet, Alaska State Troopers earlier this year charged him with making a false claim to residency. Welcome to the strange game of "Who Is Really an Alaskan?," a contest those in the Northland take very, very seriously.

The last time Negus played, the game cost him $5,000 in fines, plus more than $50,000 in attorney fees to try to defend himself. The meter is still running on that latter account, given that he has appealed his earlier conviction. Negus wants the courts to consider the ruling by a hearing officer of the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, who earlier this year concluded Negus and his wife Shannon are, indeed, residents of Yakutat. State prosecutors are fighting to keep that report out of court, apparently fearing it could set a precedent on residency.

And residency is a big issue in Alaska. The Neguses are far from the first to end up stateless and in trouble with troopers.

Colorado real-estate agent Anthony Bartell, a man who splits his time between homes in four states, was charged last fall with illegally obtaining an Alaska resident fishing license so he could get a coveted, Alaskans-only dipnet permit. Bartell called the allegation "total crap," and noted he and troopers had been down this residency road before. Bartell does not deny he spends most of the year Outside, as Alaskans call everywhere but Alaska. But, he says, he established legal residency in Alaska back in the 1990s by spending a full year in the state, and he has maintained it ever since.

He feels like an Alaskan, he said; he thinks of himself as an Alaskan. And given he spends as much time in Alaska as in the other three states where he has homes, why wouldn't he be an Alaskan. His case is headed to trial in Kenai in August, however, because Alaskans take this residency issue very, very seriously, as the Neguses can attest.

More than waffle stompers

Everyone who arrives in Alaska and buys themselves a pair of "waffle stompers" might indeed think themselves Alaskans, as the late comedian George Carlin once joked during a Fairbanks appearance, but who is "really" an Alaskan is no joke.

Troopers almost daily bust non-residents who get carried away and claim Alaska residency to save a few bucks on a hunting and fishing license, or to secure the special privileges of being "an Alaskan." Troopers claim they caught Michael Brown, 26, of Michigan, in Valdez just the other day making a claim to "residency status on the sportfish license when in fact (he) did not meet the residency requirements. Bail set at $310 in the Valdez Court."

Troopers write so many citations like this over the course of a year that agency spokeswoman Megan Peters can't even hazard a guess as to how many. There are so many, she said, that it would take too much of her time to go digging through trooper files to try to find the number. Suffice to say, there are a lot, because with residency comes not only a cheaper fishing license -- $24 per year for residents versus $145 for nonresidents -- but those aforementioned special privileges.

Alaskans can, for instance, qualify to scoop salmon by the dozens out of some rivers with what is called a dipnet. Non-residents must make do with hook and line, and are generally limited to one to six fish per day, depending on where they are fishing. If they are commercial fishermen, of course, the limits don't apply, but they must pay twice as much for their permits as Alaska-based fishermen. The difference usually amounts to hundreds of dollars.

Non-resident commercial fishermen used to pay three times as much as residents, but the Alaska State Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional in 2008. Some 4,000 non-residents who filed a class action suit have been fighting ever since to get back millions of dollars in fees. The latest action in what has been called the "Carlson Case" came in January of this year, when the high court ruled on a state motion protesting the first ordered $82 million in paybacks. The court decided then that it had over-calculated the interest on the illegally collected fees and slashed the settlement by $50 million.

Non-resident fishermen are still applying for reimbursement of the remaining $32 million while other battles go on over exactly who is and who isn't an Alaska "resident," entitled to the benefits that come with the same. But who is an "Alaskan" is not an easy thing to sort out.

Voting privileges, according to the Alaska Division of Elections, require only that "you reside in the state and intend to remain or you leave with the intent to return." Register the day the wheels on the plane touch the tarmac at Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Aairport, and you're legally entitled to vote 30 days later.

The same applies if you cross the Canadian border by motor vehicle, but if you've driven north to take a job, you'd best be doing something about that car or truck right away. The Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles considers anyone taking a job a resident and says "the owner of a vehicle, who is working in Alaska or is establishing residency in Alaska, must apply for registration within 10 days of entering the state or taking a job within the state. A non-resident may operate a vehicle with a current registration from another state for 60 days."

There are one set of rules for the costs of being an Alaskan, it would appear, and another set of rules for the benefits of being an Alaskan.

To qualify for that resident hunting or fishing license, you must complete a full 12 months in residence in the state -- no absences allowed, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The licensing requirement for hunting and fishing is even more stringent than necessary to get an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend (PFD), the annual check of more than $1,000 given to all Alaskans simply for living in the 49th state.

It's considered their "share" of the state's oil wealth, and to qualify, all anyone has to do is be in Alaska when they file a claim, profess a desire to stay in Alaska, and be ready to prove that they have been in Alaska for 365 days with no more than 180 of those days spent ranging outside of the state. In other words, you really only have to spend 185 days in the state, but for PFD purposes you can't apply for a dividend until 365 days after you first arrive and claim your plans to make Alaska a home, or at least your plans to make Alaska an official and sometimes home.

There are, indeed, so many rules for residency it can all get a little confusing.

Stateless in Alaska

Enter David Negus.

He and his wife, Shannon, are commercial fishermen and processors in an isolated village along the Gulf of Alaska coast about halfway between Anchorage, the largest city, and Juneau, the state capital in the panhandle. Yakutat, population 656, sits between the northwestern edge of the wild, 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and the southeastern edge of the wild, 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The nearest road is about 100 miles to the north in another country -- Canada. By most standards, the place is beyond what Americans would call "remote."

Still, the Neguses decided to try to build a business there -- a specialty salmon marketing business called Mystic Salmon. "I don't know if you're aware of this," David said in a phone interview from his Yakutat home, "but back in 2003 ... the governor himself started giving out all sorts of money to direct marketers to help sell Alaska salmon when things weren't going so well (in the market). A bunch of people took up that challenge, and it worked."

The Neguses created a business that caters to fresh-to-the-restaurant sales of wild-caught salmon. They now sell not only their fish, but the fish of others working out of Yakutat. A 20-page report from a hearing officer for the state's Commercial Fishery Entry Commission details how, as of February of this year, "(The Neguses) were marketing about 25,000 pounds of fresh salmon every season. To reach this capacity, they bought salmon from local gill net and troll fishermen in addition to their own harvest ... They bought fish from between seven and 21 other local fishermen per year. They only buy high quality fish, and usually pay fishermen about a dollar per pound more than they would have received at Yakutat Fisheries."

Given this, and plans to expand their business in Yakutat, the Neguses believe themselves extremely good citizens of Alaska and a benefit to the 49th state.

"I spent six years in Juneau without leaving once," David said. "Two of my sons were born in Alaska. When I left Juneau, I didn't vote because I didn't want to lose my residency."

But he did lose his residency, or at least a jury decided he'd lost his residency. Negus in 2011 was found guilty of multiple counts of "unsworn falsification" in applying for state benefits. The state benefits being, in that case, the lower fees on fishing licenses for residents. A judge fined him the $5,000 and put him on probation for five years. Negus decided then to go directly to the state Commercial Fishery Entry Commission -- the organization which hands out fishing permits -- to get a determination on whether he should be paying resident fees or non-resident fees.

In February of this year, hearing officer Frank Glass spent three days listening to testimony from the Neguses, other Yakutat fishermen, a private investigator, a former employee of the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend Division and others. Glass's report documents the lives of the Neguses in Juneau from 1990 to 1992, and again from 1994 to 1998. He later tracked them from the Capital City to Salt Lake City, where they bought a house they later sold in 2006. He notes their history of living in summer rentals in Yakutat up until 2007 when they bought property in that community.

"In 2008," he wrote, "they began building a house on the property, enclosing the structure within that year and completing the house enough to live in it during 2009.... Although they own this home in Yakutat, they spent most of the off-season months away from Yakutat, usually at the house owned by David Negus's mother in Dexter, Oregon, and on trips to develop and support their direct marketing seafood business."

Specifically, for the year prior to the hearing, Glass said the Neguses spent the month of February 2001 in Oregon, the month of March primarily traveling between restaurants on the West Coast, the month of April in Oregon and Seattle, the months of May through the start of December in Yakutat, and the holidays through the end of January in Oregon.

"In terms of number of days," he reported, "they spent 233 days in Yakutat, 114 days in Oregon, and 18 days traveling for business purposes."

Restaurants owners from the Lower 48 appeared at David's hearing in Juneau to testify. Carlos Canada, the executive chef at the Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park, Calif., said the Neguses not only visited there to talk about how to deliver the highest quality salmon to his business, but he in 2010 "visited with the Neguses for four days in Yakutat to observe their fishing and marketing business," according to the hearing record.

Canada and two other San Francisco chefs doing business with Mystic Seafood said they believed the Neguses were Alaskans. So, too, Claudia Hogue, a director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute who, according to the report, "thinks of the Neguses as Alaskans who make their home in Yakutat."

Yakutat is where the Neguses have been registered to vote since 2004. It is where their boats and motor vehicles are registered. It is the address given on their Alaska driver's licenses since 2004. It is the address used when they file their federal income tax. It is where they do business. And it is where the Commercial Fishery Entry Commission mails their limited entry permits.

The Neguses did once own a home in Salt Lake, but Glass's report notes that "since they sold that house in Salt Lake City (in 2006), they have not owned or rented a residence outside of Alaska. Mr. Negus testified ... he was a member of the Yakutat Fish Alliance, the Yakutat Chamber of Commerce, and the Yakutat Food Bank. He is on the steering committees for the Yakutat Science Center and for the Little Dock. He said he considered Yakutat to be the center of his social life."

Private investigator Steve Hinkle, a former investigator for the fishery commission, testified the Neguses look like Alaskans to him. Mary Graham, a former employee of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division, said the same. David's 87-year-old mother even appeared to testify as to her son's status as an Alaskan.

She, according to the record, said "she lives with her daughter, Rebecca, who is disabled by myasthenia gravis." David and Shannon visit, she added, but usually only between marketing trips to the state. "They stay in a guest room," the hearing record said, "which she also uses for other guests when David and Shannon are not there ... She said visits by David and Shannon are very important to her because they do a lot of the upkeep on her property, especially the work outside her house. Most recently, they rebuilt her deck, remodeled her kitchen and installed a new water heater."

David himself didn't have much nice to say about the community of Dexter when pressed in an interview with Alaska Dispatch to explain his living arrangements to Alaskans who might see him as someone retreating to the comforts of a second home in Oregon for several months every year. He described the situation as "a shitty winter in a shitty little town in Oregon." He said he and Shannon mainly go south to check in on his mother and his 57-year-old handicapped sister, and spend time traveling to restaurants and seafood events to promote Alaska wild salmon in general and their salmon in particular.

After listening to all of this testimony, and studying the arcane case law, of which there is some volume on what exactly constitutes the definition of an "Alaskan," Glass ruled that "one does not become a resident for fee purposes at the moment one decides to become an Alaska resident. The requirement to make a home in the state and remain in the state indefinitely must be met 12 months before permit renewal.

"The Neguses proved they were residents of Alaska during the 12 months prior to Feb. 1, 2012. They qualify as residents for purposes of reviewing their limited entry permits in 2012."

His conclusion was later endorsed by the commissioners of the Entry Commission, which led the Neguses to believe they were official Alaskans, Shannon said.

AINO (Alaskan in Name Only)?

Only one problem remained for the Neguses thereafter. Troopers didn't see things the same way the Entry Commission did. On the evening of June 24, they busted David again. This time the charge was "unsworn falsification second degree for obtaining a Yakutat salmon subsistence permit when he did not qualify as an Alaska resident." A subsistence permit allows people to catch fish for food, but not for sale. Almost every resident commercial fisherman in Yakutat has one, David said. They use it to catch fish for their personal use. "They need to sell every one of their commercial fish to try to make a living," he added. They also need to be "residents" to qualify for the permit.

Subsistence is, like residency, another of those strange political hot potatoes unique to Alaska. Subsistence regulations give hunting and fishing priorities to people living in rural Alaska. The subsistence priority has furthered the idea it is possible to "live off the land" in the 49th state even in the 21st century, an idea which is now starting to cause problems. There were confrontations between law enforcement and residents of Western Alaska this summer when subsistence fishermen were told they'd have to stop fishing king salmon because there weren't enough fish to meet spawning needs.

More than a few people in rural Alaska are resentful of those like the Neguses, who take advantage of subsistence opportunities while making enough money commercial fishing to spend part of the year Outside. The resentments often linger, even if the people in question mainly go Outside to promote business in Alaska.

"Have you ever been to Yakutat," an obviously angry Shannon asked in a telephone conservation. "My point is that it is a very parochial community ... (but) I'm allowed a subsistence permit."

Maybe yes. Then again maybe no. Alaska State Trooper Tim Abbott certainly didn't think the Neguses qualified for a permit when he wrote them a citation. Shannon was angry a story was written about that in Alaska Dispatch before the history of David's entry commission hearing was known.

"You just took this crap from state troopers," she said. "I guess my beef with you is you took whatever the troopers wanted to tell you and printed it as fact."

"We haven't had a trooper here (in Yakutat) for 15 years," David added. "The deal they (troopers) made with local police was if they'd build a big shop they'd send in someone. They sent in a fresh guy, a new cadet. He arrives here in town, and he wants to make a name for himself. If he can make a bunch of citations, great."

Whether there is merit to any or all of those accusations really doesn't matter, however, because -- as a matter of law -- the same report that declared the Neguses residents of Alaska for commercial fishing permit purposes would appear to indicate they might not be residents for hunting and fishing purposes. They appear to have lost their residency when they lived in Salt Lake from 1998 to 2006, and there would appear to be a question as to whether upon their return to Alaska either became "a person (including an alien) who is physically present in Alaska with the intent to remain indefinitely and make a home here, has maintained that person's domicile in Alaska for the 12 consecutive months immediately preceding this application for a license," as the statute states, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"Domicile" is the key word there, Shannon said, but really the key word might be "and."

The law says one must be "physically present in Alaska ... and" maintain a domicile in the state "for the 12 consecutive months immediately preceding the application for a license." If David was a non-resident in 2011 when originally convicted of obtaining benefits available only to a resident, he would remain a non-resident today because Glass's hearing report clearly documents he didn't spend "the 12 consecutive months immediately preceding his application" for a subsistence license in Alaska.

Both Shannon and David reaffirmed this in interviews with Dispatch. The Entry Commission, she said, "seemed to think we were residents, though we very clearly indicated we did not spend 12 months (in Alaska)." Part of his year, David said, is spent in "a shitty winter in a shitty little town in Oregon, (but) it's not like I can afford to go to Mexico and the Philippines for the winter."

Finally some luck

This time, though, the Neguses caught a break. Though troopers couldn't let go of the idea he and Shannon are non-residents because they spend part of the year Outside, the District Attorney did. Negus's attorney, former state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch of Juneau, did manage to get this charge dismissed in light of the Entry Commission ruling. David said he was told Juneau District Attorney David Brower decided to "screen out" his case because of the believe the Entry Commission report would make it hard to get a conviction.

David admitted he and his attorney were a little surprised, but then Weyhrauch is a man intimately familiar with over-enthusiastic law enforcement. He was hit with federal felony charges of conspiracy, fraud and bribery charges for sending a letter to the now-defunct oilfield services company VECO soliciting legal work. Weyrauch lwyer Doug Pope later pointed out that the letter was one of two dozen copies Weyhrauch sent to various companies as he prepared to leave the Alaska Legislature and devote all of his time to his legal business. It might have shown bad judgment, but that was about it, Pope said. And both he and prosecutors agreed Weyhrauch got no money out of the deal, which left Pope befuddled about the bribery charge against his client. He and Weyhrauch, who was freed of federal charges after agreeing to plead guilty to a state misdemeanor charge of allowing an unregistered lobbyist to lobby him as a state rep, later filed an Alaska Bar Association complaint against federal prosecutors.

A lawyer with this sort of experience behind him, Weyhrauch is a natural match for Negus, who is trying to hold back fears that the state of Alaska is simply out to get him for reasons he cannot comprehend. He finds it hard to believe this could all be over some resentment held against him because he spends part of the year living Outside, but he isn't dismissing that idea.

"I've done many winters in Alaska, and it can be brutal," he said. "I do understand that." But, he asked shouldn't there be some consideration for what the Neguses do when they are Outside?

"We pay fishermen significantly more because of our marketing," he said, about a dollar per pound more, in fact, than the other fish buyer in Yakutat. And despite that higher overhead, the Neguses were doing good until David got busted.

"We scrimped and saved and finally got to the point where we were in the black in our business," he said. "It took us, literally, five or six years to get to the point that we didn't have to go into the hole to pay fishermen here who wanted to work with us, and in one year" Mystic was in the red again because of legal fees. "We now have serious debt," he said.

Why specifically Brower decided to drop the latest charge against David is unknown. Brower is out of the office and traveling in Canada. A coworker said he was likely unreachable, but to try an email. He did not answer. It is possible Brower just decided the state has put the Neguses through enough.

"I first came to Alaska in the late '70s, and I've spent more time in Alaska since then than anywhere else," David told Dispatch before the charges were dismissed. "I've tried to promote Alaska seafood ... and now all of this puts our business in a bad light,"

One would be hard-pressed to argue with the latter claim. Mystic Seafood could be viewed, by some, as owned by the outlaw fisherman David Negus, a man without a state. But in this, he is not alone in Alaska. Sport fishing guide Tom Ohaus from Sitka appeared on the verge of being named to a prestigious position as Alaska representative on the International Pacific Halibut Commission earlier this year before he got caught in Alaska's residency tar pit.

Ohaus was very careful to put in his full-year stint in the state when he moved north in 1998, but troopers said he lost his residency when he signed the papers for a mortgage on a second home in Massachusetts. Among the papers he signed was one granting the mortgage holder protections from creditors available only to Massachusetts residents. Ohaus claims he signed the document without knowing what it meant, which is not all that uncommon for people confronting the large stack of papers that go with the closure of a mortgage on anything in America.

Needless to say, Ohaus was not named to the halibut commission and is now, like Negus, fighting to clear his name. His case is still pending in the court system. All of this for a man who spends a lot of his time outside of Alaska promoting Alaska, which is the same thing David Negus said he does.

What message, Negus wonders, is the state trying to send by prosecuting people who go Outside in the winter to, in large parts or small, promote Alaska and Alaska products? "There seems to be some disconnect," he said.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com