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Former mayor deceived Assembly, public

Dan Fagan

The Anchorage Daily News headline read, "Begich administration union contracts stir battle in Assembly." Really? Is that the story? There's a battle brewing over the Begich-backed union contracts?

KTUU's headline read, "Assembly member levels serious charges against Begich administration." So some Assembly member is making trouble for the former mayor. That's a shame.

Reading these headlines, you get the impression some politically motivated Assembly member is trying to stir things up. Is that really the story here? Is this nothing more than Assemblyman Bill Starr and former Mayor Mark Begich disagreeing over whether information was withheld when it came time to vote on long-term, locked-in, lucrative, union contracts? Is this just another he said, he said deal? Far from it.

This is also not about an attorney hired by the Assembly saying two of the contracts Begich pushed through are invalid. No, this story is all about deception.

Let's try this headline on for size: Former Mayor Mark Begich caught red-handed withholding key information from the public and Assembly while pushing his union contracts.

A memo from the former mayor's chief financial officer, Sharon Weddleton, provides the smoking gun ending all controversy over whether Begich withheld information. Weddleton's memo to Begich, sent two weeks before the union contract vote, was clear and alarming about the state of the city's finances.

She let Mr. Begich know "November investment returns were horrible," and that some departments "have started blowing their budgets several weeks earlier in the year than normal." She also offers to "cosmetically" change the numbers but added even that might not be possible.

How desperate was the situation according to Weddleton? She recommended the drastic action of resorting to an immediate hiring freeze and halting all discretionary spending.

Why such a desperate move? Weddleton sent Begich a spreadsheet predicting a deficit ranging from $33 million to $100 million. It turns out her $33 million deficit was spot-on. Weddleton sent the startling information to Begich just two weeks before the former mayor asked the Assembly to vote on the police and IBEW contracts.

Did the crucial budget information get passed on to the Assembly? Not according to Sheila Selkregg. Selkregg, who voted for the two contracts along with the other members of the socialist six, says she knew nothing of Weddleton's dire predictions and her calling for a freeze in spending and hiring. Selkregg says at one point before the contract vote, she tried to get more information from Weddleton. Selkregg says Weddleton appeared very uncomfortable and was unwilling to give her the information she requested. Selkregg could not say why she was denied information.

Assemblyman Mike Gutierrez also says he was not aware of Weddleton's doom-and-gloom budget predictions when he voted for the two union contracts. As of the writing of this column Friday, Gutierrez was still unaware of the Weddleton memo even though it had been widely reported.

Assembly member Pat Flynn also didn't know about the information Begich withheld. I asked Flynn why he thought Begich didn't reveal what he knew about the city's finances. Flynn said, "That's a tough question to answer. I don't know how to answer that, Dan."

As of my deadline for this column, three other members of the socialist six on the Anchorage Assembly, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Harriet Drummond, and Matt Claman had not returned my call.

Mayor Begich ridiculously claims he revealed all the information necessary to the Assembly and the public before the union contract votes. The facts don't back the former mayor up. Members of his own party contradict Begich's account. So do documents.

While the media will try to play this scandal as a Mark Begich-versus-Bill Starr disagreement, it is really about so much more. This scandal is clearly about Mark Begich's intentional withholding of key information that could have killed the union contracts he was trying to ram through before he left office. The scandal proves the former mayor was willing to do just about whatever it took to pay back his union boss supporters even if it meant deceiving the Assembly and the public.