Anchorage state Rep. Craig Johnson is trying to get the Legislature to hire the lobbyist husband of an aide for a $20,000 state contract, and enough questions have been raised about it that legislative leaders are setting the matter aside for extra study.
"If nothing else, it has an appearance of peculiar relationships," Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican, told the Legislative Council on Thursday as it deliberated whether to hire Mark Higgins to write a report on disputes over management of Cook Inlet salmon.
The chairman of the Legislative Council, Valdez Republican Rep. John Harris, decided to postpone the hire and have the Senate president and House speaker meet and decide whether to do it.
Johnson, a Republican who represents the Bayshore area of South Anchorage, is chairman of the Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, a special legislative panel set up to deal with the fish wars between sport and commercial users.
Johnson is asking the Legislative Council to approve the contract for Higgins, the husband of Johnson's resource committee aide, Debra Higgins. Johnson would oversee Higgins' contract to compile the long-overdue task force report.
Johnson said he understands the concerns, which is why he said he went to the Legislature's ethics staffer before taking the request to his colleagues. It was deemed OK since his aide would not have any supervision over the work, he said. He said Higgins uniquely possesses the writing skills, background in fisheries issues, and knowledge of the law needed for the report.
"If I thought there was a better person out there I would have certainly tried to get that person," he said.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, said he's talked about it with Johnson and is comfortable with Higgins. But Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, agreed with Stedman that "the husband and wife relationship is going to raise a question mark" and said Chenault or the Senate president should supervise the contract rather than Johnson if he's hired
Johnson's funding request to the Legislature highlighted Higgins' law degree from the University of Utah and his time as an editor on the law review there. It said Higgins has 25 years dealing with governments and legislative work, but did not mention that he is a lobbyist or his relationship to Johnson's staffer.
Higgins has been a well-known lobbyist and political consultant in Alaska since the late 1980s. He is currently registered to lobby the Legislature for only a single client, Hope Community Resources, a nonprofit serving the disabled. High-profile clients earlier in his career have included charitable gaming interests as well as Veco Corp., for which he lobbied from 2000 to 2003. He was also hired by the Kenai Peninsula Borough in 2001 to lobby for a private prison in that area, a project that Veco was involved in as well.
The prison won the support of the Legislature but Kenai voters ultimately rejected it. Veco as well as private prisons have been central to the corruption investigations of Alaska politicians. Higgins has not been connected to any wrongdoing and said his Veco lobbying six years ago "is not relevant, in my opinion," to the salmon report.
He said he's worked as a consultant on fisheries issues, first when hired by the commercial salmon fishing industry in 1996 to help fight a ballot initiative that would have steered more salmon to sport and personal-use fishermen. He said he also worked for onshore processors on Pollock allocation issues. Last year, Higgins said, crab harvesters and processors hired him to help work with the federal council reviewing the Individual Fishing Quota program.
The Legislature created the Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force in 2008 to figure out how to increase salmon returns in the upper inlet and referee the perpetual battles between commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen in the area. Higgins said that, while his background is in commercial fisheries work, he has three sons "and I sport fish with them, and I live in Southcentral. I think the issue is critical to about 70 percent of the population up here."
He said he approached Johnson about helping with the report after he saw the problems the task force was having finishing the work. The report was due last January, a delay Johnson has attributed to distraction from special sessions.
Johnson said the task force has received more than "1,000 pages and almost a foot of testimony" and Higgins would take that information and boil it down to a report of less than 100 pages for the Legislature.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM