The Legislature's Ethics Committee has found probable cause that Sen. Albert Kookesh broke state ethics law by implying he would deny state funding to Craig if the City Council there opposed a bill to give land to the Native corporation Kookesh works for.
The committee recommended that Kookesh, a Democrat from Angoon, write a letter of public apology to the City of Craig. That's the only penalty being recommended by the ethics panel. Under legislative ethics rules, Kookesh must comply with the recommendation within 20 days or request a hearing to appeal the decision.
The committee said he has to take responsibility in the letter for "a poor choice of words which implied he would use his senatorial power to block funding for capital improvement projects for the City of Craig" unless the council favored the lands bill.
"The letter must be concise, factual and address the ethics violation and nothing more. The verbiage must stay on point and not debate whether he agrees with this finding nor how the public or media may have misconstrued his words ... Further, the letter of public apology must contain a commitment that in the future Senator Kookesh will not imply use of his senatorial power to obtain a favorable outcome of an issue before the Craig City Council or any other elected body or organization," said the ruling released Tuesday by the ethics committee.
The committee said it's important that Kookesh realize that his words at the Craig City Council meeting "resulted in a widely held public perception" that he had violated ethics law, and that the ethics committee had found he did indeed violate the statute.
Kookesh said Tuesday he's glad the ethics committee didn't find that he had made a direct threat but, rather, an implied threat. He said he never meant it as any kind of threat at all. He said he was trying to get across to the City Council the need to work together, as Southeast Alaska is losing population and could even lose seats in the Legislature.
"I've been in the Legislature for 14 years and if the worst that anybody can say about me is that I said something that was misconstrued and offended anybody, that's not a bad record to have," Kookesh said. "I really don't want to be categorized in the same category as people who are former legislators who are sitting in jail."
Kookesh was part of a delegation of officials from Sealaska Corp. who attended the Craig City Council meeting on Jan. 7, a little more than a week before the opening of this year's legislative session. Kookesh is on the board of Sealaska, the Juneau-based regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, and was there trying to convince the council to drop its move toward opposing the Sealaska lands bill in Congress.
The council that night was considering both the Sealaska issue and its requests for money from the Legislature.
"I am the state senator that represents Craig," Kookesh told the council. "I'm not a vindictive person. I see you're going to have your 2010 capital projects on the table here tonight. And who's it going to go to? It's going to go to me. And to (Rep.) Bill Thomas, who is also a Sealaska board member. We have to be good neighbors."
"There are times you are going to need my help and Bill Thomas' help," Kookesh said next, according to an audio recording of the council meeting. "And this is a time we need yours."
Thomas, a Republican state representative from Haines who sits on the budget-writing House Finance Committee, wasn't at the Craig meeting. Kookesh represents a gigantic state Senate district that covers much of rural Alaska, from Southeast nearly to Bethel. Craig, population about 1,100, is about 50 miles from Ketchikan.
The Legislature's ethics committee ruling said it wasn't recommending sanctions beyond the letter of apology because "it found no evidence that Senator Kookesh actually gained any advantage from his statements." The Craig City Council did not pass the proposed resolution opposing the Sealaska lands bill but did send Sen. Lisa Murkowski a list of concerns. Murkowski is the sponsor of the bill in Congress.
Two ethics complaints were filed against Kookesh after his remarks in Craig. The names of the filers are confidential but former Craig Mayor Dennis Watson confirmed Tuesday that he's the author of one of the complaints. Watson said the penalty doesn't sound like much more than a slap on the hand but the main thing is that the panel acknowledged what Kookesh did was wrong.
Kookesh on Tuesday called himself a compromiser who works for his district and said he plans to run for re-election when his seat is up in 2012, unless redistricting eliminates the seat. Kookesh noted that Watson, who filed one of the complaints, has run for his Senate seat. He said Watson had every right to file the complaint if he felt Kookesh had done something wrong but "there may have been a different motivation."
Watson called that childish and said what Kookesh did was a public wrong that needed to be dealt with. He called Kookesh's statement that it wasn't a threat "baloney."
"I was the mayor for 20 years and I was a council member for three years and sat on every board and commission you can think of," he said. "I can pick a threat out pretty clearly."
The ethics committee dismissed a separate complaint against Kookesh alleging he broke the law by essentially doing the same thing at a Sitka City Council meeting on Feb. 26, 2008.
Kookesh was arguing to the Sitka council that it shouldn't pass a resolution against the Sealaska lands bill that it was considering. He reminded the council that he was a state senator and said he's done many things to benefit Sitka.
Kookesh pointed out to the council that every year he votes on the budget for Mt. Edgecumbe, the state-supported boarding school in Sitka for rural students. Kookesh, a Mt. Edgecumbe graduate, said he worked hard to reopen Mt. Edgecumbe when it closed, and that it would be devastating for Sitka if it closed again.
"I'm also a member of the majority in the Alaska Legislature with Senator (Bert) Stedman and the discussion about the cruise ship tax is a valid one," Kookesh told the Sitka council members. "And I sit as a member of that organization that's going to help decide those taxes, and I think that Sitka is going to benefit and do very well with the cruise tax initiative and with the impact to this community."
Then Kookesh did something that he didn't do when he made his controversial comments in Craig:
He said he wanted to make a "clarification point":
"I'm a state legislator. I'm a member of the state Senate. Those comments I made about helping Sitka are the same comments I would make to any community in Southeast Alaska. I would not, no matter what you do on this resolution, do anything to hurt Sitka. I've got family members and a lot of cousins and relatives who live here. So my commitment of course is to Southeast Alaska."
The ethics committee said his actions in Sitka "did not rise to a violation of the Legislative Ethics Act."
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Alaska Dispatch Publishing