It's the kind of story that makes Alaska Native Corporations cringe: a U.S. Senator takes aim at perceived waste of government money, with an Alaska Native-owned company smack in the middle of the controversy; the situation grows even more uncomfortable when a reporter digs into the claims and questions why a company from Alaska landed a stimulus-funded job in California and whether that company was the best firm to do the work.
After reporter Lance Williams and the Center for Investigative Reporting published their story "Federal stimulus program pours $54 million into Wine Train project," Suulutaaq, Inc. sued Williams and CIR for $24 million claiming Williams' story wrongfully made the company look bad.
In May, Suulutaaq dropped the case. Executives with the company and its attorney were not immediately available Monday for comment about why.
In an article about the lawsuit coming to an end, California Watch, a news site founded by CIR, states that although the complaint "challenged 11 different statements," "the company never asked for a correction and could not identify any factual errors."
Many Alaska-Native-run companies have long complained that scrutiny and criticism of their business practices has been biased, skewed in favor of people who wish to see the companies' success halted. Alaska Native Corporations have access to special contracting privileges within the federal government, including the ability to land no-bid contracts of unlimited value (if they are enrolled in the U.S. Small Business Administration's 8(a) program). Suulutaaq's involvement with the Wine Train project -- a flood mitigation effort in Napa Valley -- was a result of these kinds of contracting perks.
Suulutaaq had complained in its lawsuit that there was nothing wrong with its landing the contract and that it was qualified to do the work -- points it felt were lost in the story.
Meanwhile, the work on the Wine Train rattles on. Just this week engines rolled across two new bridges, with the job slated for completion next year.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com